‘Waiting for death: the philosophical significance of Beckett’s “En attendant Godot”’

by Ramona Cormier and Janis L. Pallister. Alabama, The University of Alabama Press, 1979


David H. Hesla


What are we to make of a book whose title tells us that it is going to explain the philosophical significance of Waiting for Godot? Whose Introduction tells us that the authors have two purposes, one of which is that of ‘extracting from this play [and only this play] the “world view” of Beckett’ (1)? Whose Bibliography contains one entry dated 1971, another 1970, and all the rest from the sixties and fifties, even though the book bears a copyright date of 1979 and the Introduction announces as the authors’ other purpose the evaluation of the ‘deluge of critical opinion’ concerning Godot? Whose pages sometimes carry three, five, six lines of the authors’ prose, the rest given over to quotation? Which summarizes the results of the ‘extracting’ with such winning naivete?


            There can be little question that Beckett’s world view in En attendant

            Godot is nihilistic since the play revolves around a fundamental

            disbelief in man as he is and as he probably would continue to be

            under any circumstances: finite, petty, and with no ultimate purpo-

            ses . . . Indeed, the negativism is so strong that the absolutes just

            discussed (absolute silence, absolute inertia), which would nor-

            mally be considered imperfections, appear here to be ideal states,

            comparable to the nihilistic yearning for silence that Wittgenstein,

            due to his recognition of the limitations of language and reason,

            expresses in his Tractatus and also to notions of silence found in

            Heidegger . . . In Beckett’s view man never has and never will

            overcome his finitude (94, 95).


Or, finally, which faults Beckett for his failure to accentuate the positive aspects of habit, memory, reason, language, and the body (‘And though Beckett regards the body as limited and finite .... there are those who would argue that it is a very nearly miraculous organism and a medium capable of great athletic and aesthetic feats’ [113])?


It is easy enough to score points against this book and its authors, but the real censure attaches to the publisher. Eight or nine years ago, when it was written (a volume published in 1971 ‘appeared after our study was completed’ [122, n. 2]), Waiting for death might have had something to contribute; now it is hopelessly outdated. Instead of expanding on the book’s problems (how can finite man overcome his finitude?) I shall turn this space to a different use.


It is a little odd that the authors are so hard on Beckett for his want of optimism. Christians such as Pascal found little in man to praise. Here is Pascal on Didi and Gogo as they are waiting:


            Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest,

            without passions, without business, without diversion . . . He then

            feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his depen-

            dence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise

            from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness,

            vexation, despair (PP 11, 131, 38).1


And here he is on Godot and his offer as the ‘foundation’ on which the two tramps mean to build their lives:


            Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most

            contrary to our inclinations; we bum with desire to find solid ground

            and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching

            to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth

            opens to abysses (PP 11, 72, 19).


In Pascal’s view man is miserable because he is without God. In Schopenhauer’s he is miserable because he is will—the will to live:


            This great intensity of will is in itself and directly a constant source

            of suffering. In the first place, because all volition as such arises

            from want; that is, suffering . . . Secondly, because, through the

            causal connection of things, most of our desires must remain

            unfulfilled, and the will is oftener crossed than satisfied (PS 65,



Schopenhauer has no time for God, but that does not mean he cannot establish a moral code and distinguish wrong from right. In the interaction of two human beings—that is, two wills—


the will of the first breaks through the limits of the assertion of will of

            another, because the individual either destroys or injures this other

            body itself, or else because it compels the powers of the other body

            to serve its own will . . . This breaking through the limits of the

            assertion of will of another has always been distinctly recognized,

            and its concept denoted by the word wrong (PS 62, 279).


Wrong shows itself in acts of cannibalism, murder, the mutilation or injury of another body, in the ‘subjugation of another individual, in forcing him into slavery,’ and in the seizure of another’s goods (PS 62, 279-80).


In presenting his concept of the right or good Schopenhauer takes pains to distinguish his position from Kant’s. Kant differentiated between actions resulting from ‘inclination’ and those resulting ‘from duty.’ The former include all such acts as arise out of man’s nature or instinct or temperament; the latter includes only those acts done freely and in obedience to the categorical imperative, which in one formulation reads, ‘Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’ (FMM, 39). Such a maxim, however, can be determined only by the application to a given situation of the faculty of reason.


Kant supplies an interesting example of the difference between inclination and duty. Suppose, he says, you have someone who is by disposition or inclination a friend to mankind, someone who finds an inner satisfaction in spreading joy and rejoicing in the contentment of others. For such a person to be kind to another would have no moral worth, for his act would be merely natural or instinctive. But now suppose that


            the mind of that friend to mankind was clouded by a sorrow of his

            own which extinguished all sympathy with the lot of others and that

            he still had the power to benefit others in distress, but that their

            need left him untouched because he was preoccupied with his own

            need. And now suppose him to tear himself, unsolicited by inclina-

            tion, out of this dead insensibility and to perform this action only

            from duty and without any inclination—then for the first time his

            action has genuine moral worth (FMM, 14).


This is the distinction Didi makes when he discourses on the possibility of helping Pozzo get up. ‘All mankind is us,’ he declares. ‘Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us!’ (WFG, 51). He and Gogo do indeed represent all mankind, for the action they are about to take is an expression of their will that that act should become a universal law. They do not immediately help Pozzo up, however, for Didi’s resolution is paralyzed by Kant’s distinction between inclination and duty, the tiger representing the former: ‘It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflection . . .’ (WFG, 5151a). In the Kantian frame of things Didi and Gogo cannot represent worthily their species by leaping to Pozzo’s aid, for that would be an act arising out of inclination and so of no moral worth. They act ‘humanly’ and ‘morally’ only if they think about what they are doing, and then act ‘from duty.’


Schopenhauer rejects Kant’s rationality and the idea of a categorical imperative. For him ‘no genuine virtue can be produced through moral theory or abstract knowledge’; such virtue must rather ‘spring from that intuitive knowledge which recognises in the individuality of others the same nature as our own’ (PS 66, 299). Real goodness then does not proceed from abstract knowledge but from ‘a direct intuitive knowledge . . . which cannot be communicated, but must arise in each for himself, which therefore finds its real and adequate expression not in words, but only in deeds . . .’ (PS 66, 320). That ‘intuitive knowledge’ is nothing other than sympathy, and sympathy is simply the knowledge of the suffering of others (PS 67, 303).


So it is only when Didi and Gogo have fallen down that Didi can accurately name himself and his fellow: ‘We are men.’ And being down, they can sympathize with the suffering of the fallen Pozzo. (Pozzo’s other miseries were of a sort the two tramps could not understand and so sympathize with.) The tableau that is then presented to us—‘They get him up again. Pozzo sags between them, his arms round their necks’—is as explicit as Beckett allows himself to get in telling us what to do, how to live.


Schopenhauer also explains why Beckett calls the play a ‘tragicomedy’:


            The life of every individual, if we survey it as a whole and in general,

            and only lay stress upon its most significant features, is really

            always a tragedy, but gone through in detail, it has the character of

            a comedy. For the deeds and vexations of the day, the restless

            irritation of the moment, the desires and fears of the week, the

            mishaps of every hour, are all through chance, which is ever bent

            upon some jest, scenes of a comedy. But the never-satisfied wishes,

            the frustrated efforts, the hopes unmercifully crushed by fate, the

            unfortunate errors of the whole life, with increasing suffering and

            death at the end, are always a tragedy. Thus, as if fate would add

            derision to the misery of existence, our life must contain all the

            woes of tragedy, and yet we cannot even assert the dignity of tragic

            characters, but in the broad detail of life must inevitably be the

            foolish characters of a comedy (PS 58, 261).


The point I am trying to make is that Beckett—does this still need to be said?—is no more a nihilist than he is a Marxist, a Pyrrhonist, or a Christian. But he is a moralist, if by that term one means simply that there is in Godot, as in all his work, an explicit difference between right and wrong. It is wrong for Pozzo to treat Lucky as he does. It is wrong far Gogo to kick the fallen Lucky, even though the moral significance of his action is immediately obscured by the comic effect of Gogo’s hurting himself and calling Lucky a brute. All such Punch-and-Judy antics are fundamentally sadistic; but as Nell says, echoing Schopenhauer, ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness’ (E, 18).


In all of Godot there are only two actions that are right: Didi’s covering with his own coat the sleeping Gogo (WFG, 45a), and the two helping Pozzo to stand. Both proceed from sympathy, for Didi knows it is preferable to be warm rather than cold, and both know that it is preferable to be up rather than down. These acts of kindness are few and transient, unearned and without effect; but they establish the moral principle in terms of which all other actions are to be assessed. If we do not understand this, it is because we are too decadent to receive it.


Beckett is no more pessimistic than his predecessors in the tradition of despondency—Schopenhauer, Leopardi, Calderon, the Abderite. He is no grimmer than Pascal: ‘The last act is tragic, however happy all the rest of the play is; at the last a little earth is thrown upon our head, and that is the end for ever’ (PP III, 210). No grimmer, for that matter, than Koheleth, the Preacher: ‘So I returned and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter’ (Eccl. 4:1). Yet Koheleth, like Schopenhauer and Beckett, sees a comfort, albeit a small one, in sympathy; for two are better than one:


            Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their

            labour. For if they fail, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him

            that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up

            (Eccl. 4:9-10).


1 References for Godot (WFG) and Endgame (E) are to the Grove Press editions; for Pascal (PP) to section, paragraph, and page of Pascal’s Pensees, trans. W. F. Trotter, New York: Dutton, 1958 ; for Schopenhauer (PS) to section and page of The philosophy of Schopenhauer, ed. Irwin Edman, New York: Modern Library, 1928; and for Kant, FMM, to Foundations of the metaphysics of morals, trans. Lewis White Beck, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.