‘The Transformations of Godot’

by Frederick Busi. Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1980. 143 pp.


H. Porter Abbott


This book is an example of ‘onomastic’ criticism, that is, criticism which subjects proper names to a chemical breakdown in the hope of finding the meaning, or meanings, of a work. It has been practiced widely, if incidentally, in Beckett criticism for, I believe, two principal reasons. One is Beckett’s association with Joyce which, whatever its true character, has led to a presumption of influence. Even in studies like this one, which acknowledge the stark contrast between the two authors’ use of words, the association is established as a licence for the unpacking of Beckett’s names as if they had originally been packed by the author of Finnegans wake. The other reason is that Beckett’s originality lies in part in the way he has put the frustration of meaning at the centre of his work. The puzzled critic is driven, understandably, to investigate the names to find a meaning he is sure must be hidden somewhere.


Frederick Busi’s response to less sophisticated onomasts who have found the meaning concealed in one of the names is not that they are wrong but that they are only fractionally right. One gains the impression that there are no wrong meanings, only wrong exclusiveness. Whether this impression is justified or not depends on which of two possible arguments one selects. Both come to the surface in this study, but I am not sure which one Busi wishes, finally, to endorse. One is that a masterpiece, by definition, is a work in which ‘the meanings multiply, they shift ground, they accumulate with each reading.’ Waiting for Godot is thus a continually elusive object, constantly open to interpretation, constantly escaping any fixed meanings. The other reason is that Didi and Gogo, Pozzo and Lucky, even Godot, are the transient faces of a shared nothingness. The more opposable meanings in the names, the more the effect of disintegration: ‘They are meant to cancel each other out.’ Yet the ideas of nothingness, of the mutability of the self, of the illusory nature of identity, have the ring of what could be called the meaning of the play. Busi recurs repeatedly to this ‘meaning.’ He speaks of it as the ‘unacceptable reality’ from which the players hide, of how they avoid the ‘horrendous moment of truth.’ Thus Busi appears to endorse a stable, non-contradictory set of ideas which constitute the play’s meaning; but I cannot tell whether we are meant to accept it as such, or whether it is delivered sous rature or in some other way which would deny the privileged, fixed status Busi seems to give it.


The confusion here on the subject of meaning is significant. On the one hand, Godot is infinitely interpretable. On the other hand, it is no Rorschach blot but the product of a craftsman who, for specific ends, has loaded his names with the meanings the diligent appreciator appreciates. In practice, what emerges is a kind of compromise between the two: a method in which they key words are ‘may,’ ‘perhaps’ and’possibly.’ ‘One may perhaps perceive’ a source for Didi in ‘Didicism’ (Joyce’s coinage for the opposite of the early heresy Docetism). But then ‘it is possible’ that Didi comes from Vladimir Dixon (final contributor in Our exagmination, suspected by Stuart Gilbert to be Joyce). It is also possible that he may have come from ‘Ditisque’ (for did not Lucan write ‘Vobis auctoribus umbrae/non tacitas Erebi sedes Ditisque prof undi/pallida regna petunt’?), or for that matter, from ‘Didymus,’ or ‘Dysmas.’ If one turns to the name of Lucky, and listens carefully, one will hear the name of St. Luke. ‘To French ears the name of Pozzo’s slave suggests this evangelist,’ and furthermore the famous evidence about the two thieves can be found in St. Luke. Moreover, Joyce, with whom Beckett had an ‘important literary relationship,’ punned many times on the name of Luke in Finnegans wake. This should not prevent us, however, from ‘noting that Lucky’s name may be derived Lucifer’ (Pozzo’s former ‘good angel’). And this in turn should not prevent us (would that it should) from noting that ‘perhaps’ the name (we are still listening with French ears) ‘also stems in part’ from Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James Joyce. She loved Beckett and later on she ended up in a state of insanity, a condition which is said to afflict Lucky.


So, in effect, what you have here is a criticism of complete indemnity in which, thanks to the qualifiers, the critic can say something and not say it at the same time. He means it, yet he doesn’t mean it. He expresses himself, in other words, pretty much the way he seems to want to say that Beckett expresses himself. He says at one point that ‘the comparison between Joyce’s Luke and Beckett’s Lucky should not be forced.’ But with such a method, what can ‘forced’ possibly mean? Once one has established an art of total possibility, one has by the same stroke established a criticism of total possibility. One will never run out of things to say. As for demonstrating one’s point, to use an underworld expression, ‘this can be arranged.’ If you want to find a covert allusion to Connemara in Lucky’s reference to the works of Steinweg and Peterman, go ahead. Steinweg and Peterman mean Stoneway and Stoneman, and Connemara ‘is noted as a stone-strewn wilderness.’ If ingenuity flags, and you have temporarily run dry on Lucky, you can note that in the French version Pozzo calls Lucky a ‘knouk’ (in the English, a ‘Knook’). This will allow you to discuss the Russian ‘knout’ (whip), Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (The royal slave), Irish place names (Knockmaroon, Castleknock) and behind them the Irish word for hill (‘Cnuc’—hard to see Lucky as a hill, but the important point is that this is Gaelic and Gaelic brings to mind myth and wordplay), the low German ‘knuk’ (meaning knock; Lucky gets knocked), ‘knack’ (‘a jester’s trick’), the English ‘knacker’ (four different meanings), and the Scottish ‘knock’ (meaning clock: important because ‘the most revealing part of Lucky’s famous three-page monologue deals mainly with the problem of time’).


I don’t think it would be heretical to suggest that naming is the least of a playwright’s achievements. In Beckett’s case, moreover, the primary consideration may be the sheer musical sounds of the names—how they ring together. If meaning is involved, it is often forthright, vigorous and pungent. Krapp, Lucky. Surely the inspiration in naming Lucky was the simple, unportmanteaued nickname with its plain meaning. Strokes of genius do not necessarily require analysis. But this may lead us to the nub of the matter. ‘I make no claims to unlock all the mysteries of Godot,’ Busi modestly tells us. ‘Plays so easily analyzed just are not interesting plays.’ In this view, questions of literary value and importance are reduced to the question: Is the play analysis-worthy? Small wonder that at one point, Busi can look forward without regret to the day when Godot is finally dissociated from its author’s intentions. For when that day arrives, there will be no limits to Busi’s version of analysis. But, then, when that day arrives, this play—over the production of which the author has exercised so constant and exacting a vigilance—will have become a kind of sexual object. The comparison is not forced. One will not listen to the play, but find in it confirmation of one’s own fantasies. One will molest it. One will have onomasms.


To be fair to Busi, there are interesting speculations in this study among them, that Beckett may reflect the influence of the early gnostic Marcion and of Joachimite views of history. But given the author’s method, we are almost always lost among the trees. We rarely see the woods, and then generally by tortuous inference. Again, to be fair, the book is offered as a probe, disclaiming larger ambitions. But this leaves the reader with much loose material, fatiguing because so purely speculative. Learning run amuck. Finally, I cannot agree with Busi that either his approach or the views of meaning he invokes to justify it were what Beckett had in mind when he spoke (to Alec Reid) of the play’s effort ‘to avoid definition’ or when he insisted (to Alan Schneider) on ‘the extreme simplicity of the dramatic situation and issue.’ I am tempted to think, by Beckett’s irascible tone in the latter, that Busi’s method represents, in the extreme, what he did not have in mind: more ‘headaches among the overtones.’