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GODOT: THE NON-NEGATIVE NOTHINGNESS AUBREY D. KUBIAK IN Samuel Beckett’s 1952 play En Attendant Godot,1 the two main characters are waiting for nothing, that is, for a character that is forever absent and seems to come to represent absence itself. It is for this reason that critics, literary specialists, and even theatergoers have consistently characterized the play as pessimistic; not only are the play’s main characters waiting for “someone” who never arrives, but they are depicted as utterly hopeless and at times preferring death to the tedious repetition of everyday life. Though in actuality Beckett may have intended En Attendant Godot to be representative of a pessimistic worldview, a reader familiar with some of Heidegger’s early work should be able to come to a less pessimistic2 understanding of the play, based on Heidegger’s conception of nothingness and its importance to the existence and experience of being itself. The philosophy of Nietzsche and Camus will be considered in our pursuit of this insight into a non-pessimistic void, and we will find that an earlier text of Beckett’s will aid us to this end. Firstly, we must determine more precisely what pessimism is. The pessimism at issue here is philosophical pessimism, which can be very generally defined as the idea that human life is not worth living, or that, as Schopenhauer believed, we live in the worst of all possible worlds 1 Beckett himself translated the play in 1954 into the English Waiting for Godot (Grove Press) with the added subtitle “A Tragicomedy in Two Acts”. The author of the present work chooses to use the original French text, due to the slight “translation” differences which appear in the later version. 2 As we shall see, the terms ‘pessimistic’ and ‘negative’ (which will be used interchangeably at times) are associated with philosophical pessimism, and imply a rejection of life. The terms ‘non-pessimistic’ and ‘non-negative’ will be preferred to ‘optimistic’ and ‘positive’, due to the many connotations of the latter terms that would be superfluous to this study. I owe the term ‘non-negative’ to Kundert-Gibbs. 395 (contrary to Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds). Pessimism can by and large be understood as leading to despair and the desire to renounce life. In The Birth of Tragedy (1879), Nietzsche traces pessimism back to the ancient Greek story of Silenus, the enigmatic and hideous companion of the god Dionysius; according to Nietzsche, when Silenus was captured by King Midas, he was prompted to unveil his secret wisdom: Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this – to die soon (§3). Here we can see that philosophical pessimism is closely linked – but not identical, which is crucial – to nihilism, or the belief that life is without value or meaning. We hear this message clearly echoed by Pozzo, another character in En Attendant Godot: “Elles accouchent à cheval sur une tombe, le jour brille un instant, puis c’est la nuit à nouveau” (Beckett, Godot 154). We see in the opinions of these two personae a horror of the arbitrary nature of human life, which implies the absence of a stable ground upon which to build a moral or rational understanding of existence , or even an objectively determined system of language – that is, one in which the relation between signifier, signified and referent is universally understood. The absence of reliable and concrete language dooms the individual to isolation, rendering one unable to establish a secure basis of communicating with, or otherwise reaching out to, fellow human beings. Camus explains in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942) that this experience of absurdity, or lack of meaning (both moral and intellectual), is the typical situation of the modern person, who must find a way in a world that has survived the Death of God. The human impulse is to establish for one’s self a ‘raison d’être’ and to rationalize...


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pp. 395-405
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