Posts Tagged ‘analysis’

Narratricide: An Analysis of the Tree in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

March 1, 2017


“I don’t know why, but I just don’t trust trees. I appreciate that they are supposed to provide oxygen for us, but I’m not entirely sure that I believe that. They intimidate me—probably because I’ll end up dressed in one before long.”
—Jarvis Cocker

The famously sparse stage directions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot begin with three terse images: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Beckett’s simple images are often deceptive and transmographic – ideas that resist any artistic tendency to linger over specificity or detail. Lest the mind become lulled into lazy, comfortable patterns of thinking, Beckett creates images that take on quasi-symbolic roles, serving to provoke an unclarity in the imagination. This lack of clarity is employed by Beckett to suggest what is suggestible but isn’t already there on stage, or on paper, mise en scene. Of the three opening stage directions, the tree becomes of most concern – mostly because it recurringly appears, but also because of its narratological significance. Though the tree appears to be as symbolically feeble as its branches, it keeps Godot’s characters rooted to the spot throughout the play.

Beckett’s stage directions are rather bare like Godot’s tree, and have presented a challenge to set designers over the years. Indeed, Beckett himself fell victim to his own brevity in 1961, attempting to revive Godot in Paris. At the time, Beckett had found himself persistently critical of the productions of his own works, particularly the shortcomings of set designers for Godot. Thus, in 1961, Beckett reached out to Alberto Giacometti, a sculptor with whom he had long held drinking ties. Giacometti’s task was to collaborate with Beckett on the (in)famed tree’s design, a task which “confounded them both.” Beckett and Giacometti spent the whole night sculpting Godot’s tree, “trying to make it sparser, smaller, the branches thinner. It never looked any good,” wrote Giacometti, “and neither he nor I liked it. And we kept saying to each other, Perhaps like this…” It is with this anecdote in mind that Siobhan Bohnacker writes, “What motivates Beckett’s protagonists is the pursuit of the Absolute, similar to [Beckett and Giacometti’s] persistent, deep-rooted doubt that they would ever find the perfect artistic form.” In comparing Beckett and Giacometti to Godot’s characters, Estragon and Vladimir, one can see how Beckett eventually embodied the very “plot” to which he subjected Godot’s characters: waiting. It’s as though Beckett, in leaving the stage directions as bare as the tree he wrote, was playing a trick on himself, taunting his future self’s frustrated attempts to reify what would otherwise belong to the hidden, personal realms of the imagination.

Beckett’s tree frustrated not only himself and his sculpting companion, but the characters in (and audiences to) Godot as well. In Beckett’s play, the tree is first acknowledged by the characters when Estragon questions Vladimir on why they are, in fact, waiting for Godot – and yet this serves to calm no one and solves no questions:

Estragon: [despairingly] Ah! [Pause.] You’re sure it was here?
Vladimir: What?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others.
Estragon: What is it?
Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.
Estragon: Where are the leaves?
Vladimir: It must be dead.
Estragon: No more weeping.
Vladimir: Or perhaps it’s not the season.

The tree, in this scene, serves as an organizing plot device which anchors Vladimir and Estragon to the location that will remain constant on stage throughout Godot’s performance. They are waiting there, on stage, because “he” (presumably Godot) told them to wait by the tree. And yet, “he” is never quite specified, nor is Godot ever made present to Beckett’s characters. It’s as though this tree were a stand-in for Godot himself. What’s curious about this interpretation, however, is in the symbolism underlying Vladimir’s characterization of the tree as “a willow” and the subsequent exchange that follows. For the image of the willow tree is religiously charged, both in the Celtic and Christian traditions (which Beckett, an Irish expatriate, would be no stranger to). Planted in memorial of the dead, a willow tree is a sign both of grief and of hope for new life. Furthermore, willows are usually planted along the coast of a body of water, at a site that physically represents the ever-changing nature of life. It is with these mortal concerns in mind that one can find morbid humor in Estragon’s classic non-sequitur, “No more weeping.”

The debate between Estragon and Vladimir regarding the tree’s “tree” status is also of note for Godot. In an otherwise humorous exchange that wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python skit, the tree is examined:

Estragon: Looks to me more like a bush.
Vladimir: A shrub.
Estragon: A bush.
Vladimir: A–. What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?

As the characters argue about the nature of the tree (as a beaconing object) by which they were told to wait for Godot, they simultaneously call its role as a symbol into question. If we entertain the common interpretation of Godot’s (lack of) arrival as symbolizing salvation for Vladimir and Estragon (i.e. Waiting for Salvation), then the characters, as early as the sixth page of the play, negate the tree’s possibility as a “site of salvation.” For, in questioning its existence as a tree, Vladimir and Estragon question salvation itself. Despite their simultaneous faith and eschatological skepticism towards Godot’s arrival, the characters remain rooted to the spot, in vain, waiting for Godot.

Staring into the blank, infinite morass of boredom, Estragon eventually offers to Vladimir a solution to confront their own existential ennui: “What about hanging ourselves?” In other words, Estragon presents an inversion to their own hopeless situation of boredom; if salvation isn’t coming for them, then they must confront it themselves, by suicide. Both characters rather abruptly agree that hanging themselves would indeed be a welcome respite from their endless waiting (as Estragon continues, “Let’s hang ourselves immediately!”). Yet, Beckett doesn’t allow the tree to provide the characters (or the audience, in fact) with the means to flee their existential confinement. Rather, as the characters quickly discover, the tree’s branches wouldn’t be strong enough to hang even one of them. Thus, Estragon and Vladimir are forced to abandon their suicidal impulses (to kill time), lingering around this tree, waiting for Godot.

Act Two begins with more robust stage directions, including how “The tree has four or five leaves,” a marked change from yesterday’s bare limbs. The stage directions continue, as Vladimir enters “agitatedly” and “halts,” taking a long look at the tree. Then, as though the tree’s regeneration has sparked some kind of revelation (or panic) in Vladimir’s mind, he “suddenly begins to move feverishly about the stage.” Unlike the introduction to Act One, the second act overtly begins with the tree as the main object of concern in the play. As critics of Godot, such as Emily Atkins, have suggested, the tree’s very obvious presence in the beginning of the second act is an “indication of the characters’ impending salvation.” The dawn of the new day in Act Two is accompanied by a seemingly symbolic regeneration of the tree – an act which harkens (and yet subverts) mythology from time immemorial such as the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, and so on. The tree’s regeneration deceptively suggests that the second act will bring about the conclusion for which Vladimir, Estragon, and the audience, are waiting for.

Further on in Godot’s second act, Vladimir and Estragon reenact a scene from Act One. Estragon asks Vladimir what they do now that they are “happy,” to which Vladimir responds, “Wait for Godot. [Estragon groans. Silence.] Things have changed here since yesterday.” After a moment of puzzlement between the two characters, Vladimir implores Estragon to look at the tree:

Vladimir: The tree, look at the tree. [Estragon looks at the tree.]
Estragon: Was it not there yesterday?
Vladimir: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves
    from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you remember?
Estragon: You dreamt it.
Vladimir: Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?
Estragon: That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.

This exchange between Beckett’s characters must indeed be as frustrating to the audience as it is to his characters. As far as the audience (and Vladimir) is concerned, the tree is the same – give or take a few leaves. Estragon, on the other hand, in the act of forgetting, radically calls the tree’s continuity into question: “Recognize! What is there to recognize?” However, as Atkins suggests, Estragon is not madly arguing against Vladimir’s memory – the tree is clearly on set, and the characters have interacted with it multiple times – thus Estragon’s “exclamation” of recognition must be interpreted as his undermining the very stability of symbolic meaning, as well as the stability of memory’s fixation of objects (such as the tree) in time. Atkins concludes that Estragon’s outburst “undermines any hope that the tree is moving toward a symbol of possible redemption, despite its new leaves.”

Further on in Godot, Vladimir and Estragon return to their hollow affirmations of happiness. Trailing off between ellipses, Vladimir drones on:

Vladimir: Wait…we embraced…we were happy..happy…what do we do now that we’re happy…go on waiting…waiting…let me think…it’s coming…go on waiting…now that we’re happy…let me see…ah! The tree!
Estragon: The tree?
Vladimir: Do you not remember?
Estragon: I’m tired.
Vladimir: Look at it. [They look at the tree.]
Estragon: I see nothing.

As Vladimir seems to recognize in this scene of meditation around the tree, happiness is manifest through his memory, not through his experience of the present. His insistence that “we were happy” [my italics] coupled with “go on waiting” indicates that happiness, as conceptualized in Godot, is as transient as the other fleeting aspects of this play. That is, happiness is something only identifiable in retrospect, and if we seek to prosthetically emulate the feeling in the present, then we will, like Vladimir, “go on waiting.” The characters in Godot are so intent on coming to an end – a conclusion, a closed stage curtain, Godot’s arrival, etc. – that they have, like Estragon, missed what has been right in front of their eyes for the entire play: the tree and its new leaves.

Vladimir is not willing to allow Estragon’s forgetfulness to distract the audience from the tree’s newly formed leaves. He insists that the tree has significance, that the seasons have changed, that time has passed:

Vladimir: But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with leaves.
Estragon: Leaves?
Vladimir: In a single night.
Estragon: It must be the Spring.
Vladimir: But in a single night!

Vladimir and Estragon have radically different interpretations of the tree’s imbued significance, both as a stage prop and a symbol of potential meaning. Vladimir, excited by the tree’s new leaves, projects hope (for the future, for life, for creation) onto the tree, while Estragon sees the tree with a sense of loss (of memory, of time, of meaning). Atkins suggests that, “by playing with the image in this way, Beckett removes its ability to convey a set answer or explanation to his characters or his audience. It is up to each person to determine for himself the tree’s ultimate significance.” The tree, devoid of objective meaning, purposefully presented as an anti-symbolic image, becomes itself a kind of character – one which the audience must interact with as they negotiate the tree’s meaning.

The tree, understood as a symbol of a symbol, is an instance of what H. Porter Abbot calls “narratricide,” a dismemberment of narrative meaning. In his book, Beckett Writing Beckett, Abbot writes, “[Beckett’s] texts are littered everywhere with the barest fragments of narrative irrelevancy which lead nowhere and […] frequently feature objects,” a tree in this case, “which augment their alinear, achronological condition.” The tree in Godot, according to Abbot, augments the achronological condition of Vladimir and Estragon’s predicament, serving to alienate (rather than situate) them within the broader narrative arc – if that could be said – of Godot. Beckett, it would seem, “unwrites” his images as soon as he allows us to see them.

As the second act progresses, Vladimir and Estragon mistakenly hope for a moment that Godot is on his way (“At last!” “We’re saved!”), only to panic in the realization that they are “surrounded.” The characters rush to escape the scene, and Vladimir says to Estragon:

Vladimir: Your only hope is to disappear.
Estragon: Where?
Vladimir: Behind the tree. [Estragon hesitates.] Quick! Behind the tree. [Estragon goes and crouches behind the tree, realizes he is not hidden, comes out from behind the tree.] Decidedly this tree will not have been the slightest use to us.

This moment of comic relief demonstrates yet again the tree’s loss of all objective meaning. Not only is the tree “useless” to the characters as a source of symbolic meaning, but it is useless as a physical prop to hide behind. Vladimir’s remark, despite its self-referential tone, speaks to our need as an audience to have allegorical meaning imbued in scenes such as this one in Godot. By resisting the obvious symbolism of trees, Beckett presents to us an image as image, or, as Abbot writes, “an image of an image.” The image of an image, in Abbot’s conception, is not penetrable in the way that a traditionally symbolic image would be. The tree, then, does not offer concrete, objective meaning to the audience; it rather opens up the audience to projecting their own meaning onto the tree.

As Godot concludes, Estragon suggests to Vladimir that they abandon their persistent waiting. This sense of downtrodden failure, fatigue, and spiritual famine culminates in one final scene with the tree:

Estragon: And if we dropped him? [Pause.] If we dropped him?
Vladimir: He’d punish us. [Silence. He looks at the tree.] Everything’s dead but the tree.
Estragon: [looking at the tree] What is it?
Vladimir: It’s the tree.

To this end, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty comes to mind, in which he expounds upon theories of epistemic agreement. “The information ‘That is a tree,’ when no one could doubt it,” Wittgenstein writes, “might be a kind of joke and as such have meaning.” In this light, Vladimir’s remark, “It’s the tree,” become itself a sort of joke which we, the audience, are in on. Wittgenstein’s idea is that making obvious remarks, such as Vladimir’s, is a way of turning what is otherwise forgettably mundane into something remarkably memorable – in this case, Godot’s tree. Vladmir’s comment could also be interpreted as “a platitude that houses a profundity,” as Matthew Bevin suggests, or that the presence of the tree is a paradox: “things are both clear and not clear.” If Bevin is correct, then Wittgenstein’s remark that “a good and serious philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes” becomes all the more relevant to Beckett’s play. For, as is frustratingly evident in Beckett’s writings, Beckett was well-versed in philosophy and yet refused to engage seriously in its work. If Wittgenstein can be read as applying to Beckett, then it seems that this tree – a joke, in Wittgenstein’s conception – appears to meta-textually evoke the sort of “serious” philosophical work that Beckett refused to write.

[Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree. They stand motionless before it. Silence.]
Estragon: Why don’t we hang ourselves?


Love at Last Sight

March 10, 2016


The Flaneur is he who wanders, observes, and turns those observations into works of art; but perhaps the most crucial detail specific to the Flaneur’s activities is his seeing in motion, seeing in time. That is, the Flaneur pays primacy to the fleeting, fugitive aspects of life. William Carlos Williams’ works most clearly exemplify this constant characteristic of change. His poetry, both literally and metaphorically, moves through spaces, through time. Reading Williams as a Flaneur, in addition to his being a doctor and a poet, reveals the ways in which Flaneurs have captured something in their works, something reflecting a deep-seated wisdom about the present moment, namely, the Modern.

William Carlos Williams was a man who spent much of his life in motion. As a doctor, he was incessantly immigrating from house call to house call; he was seeing the world in motion. Constantly faced with the births of many newborn babies, Williams invariably was forced to see the world in time. One could go on about Williams’ biography, but this motion and time with which Williams navigated his everyday life moves into his poetry as well. For example, in “Aux Imagistes,” he wrote of the motion of blossoms: “I think I have never been so exalted, / As I am now by you, / O frost bitten blossoms, / That are unfolding your wings / From out the envious black branches.” In this opening stanza, Williams gives the flower blossoms agency of a kind; the “unfolding” of “your” wings is juxtaposed with the “envious” branches. This agency suggests not only the literal movement of unfolding wings, but that the plant itself will soon follow with spring’s insistence.

The poem continues, “Bloom quickly and make much of the sunshine. / The twigs conspire against you! / Hear them! / They hold you from behind!” The easy target of this second stanza is the word “quickly,” as the reminder of temporality is interpolated by the poem’s narrator. There are, however, several more subtle suggestions of movement and time within this stanza. The invocation to “make much of the sunshine” implicitly acknowledges the fleetingness of daylight, how night will return, how the seasons change. The anthropomorphic, conspiratory “twigs” of this stanza also implicate how the changing of the seasons will soon rid the plant of blooms, and restore it with leaves. Even the image Williams’ poem provides, “They hold you from behind,” suggests a literal, physical movement of the twigs–militantly, as though fighting to take back territory–to retake the branches from which the blossoms now dwell. Both elements of the Flaneur’s seeing in motion, and seeing in time, surreptitiously dominate the background of this poem, in the form of a plant, thus far.

This poem’s final stanza, however, pulls together these threads of motion and time nicely: “You shall not take wing / Except wing by wing, brokenly, / And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” The image of a wing is one which conjures the image of some bird or butterfly, some animal capable to freely move, unfettered, through the air. To characterize this poem’s plant as one bearing wings is peculiar, but not in the analogical realm. That is, the wings of this plant may be as literal as its leaves, but the following line, “wing by wing, brokenly,” can be read as each leaf falling, wing by wing (one by one), brokenly (leaving the plant bare). In other words, the plant will try to fill itself out in vain. It struggles against the weather, the elements, the seasons, and does what it can. But it will lose leaf by leaf, inexorably, in the end: “And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” This poem’s closing stanza acknowledges the physical changes in the plant over time–capturing both of the Flaneur’s fluid fascinations of motion and time. On the surface, one might not be inclined to attribute movement to plants, or think of them as anything remotely exciting to watch in time. However, as evidenced by William Carlos Williams’ many plant images throughout his poems, plants were something he saw as very much in motion. This poem is an example of the very thing Williams read into the world itself: Motion and Time.

A less abstract instance of Williams’ seeing in the Flaneur’s fashion is seen in his poem, “The Young Housewife.” This poem begins “At ten A.M.” where this young housewife “moves about” from the narrator’s perspective, behind the walls of “her husband’s house.”. Initially, time has already been accounted for in the very first line; motion has been observed in the housewife, motion contrasted against the still backdrop of her husband’s house. The narrator, himself, is also in motion, as he passes, “solitary in [his] car.” Not only is the housewife in motion, but so is the narrator. The poem continues, “Then again she comes to the curb,” suggesting both the further movement of the housewife “to the curb,” but “again,” as though the narrator has watched her make this movement repeatedly. As the narrator continues on, he witnesses her “shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair, and I compare her / to a fallen leaf.” The narrator’s noticing of her lack of corset reveals the movement of his eyes, and her tucking in of hair provides the reader with a fluid motion of delicate fingers securing loose locks of hair into proper place. But why compare her to a fallen leaf? Given the value Williams gives to the motion and time of plants, this image suggests that this woman does not belong on the metaphorical tree from which she came: her husband’s “wooden walls.” One wonders if this woman as unhappy in her marriage, sexually inviting in a “shy” way, perhaps even as adulterous, as she comes out to meet the “ice-man” and “fish-man” in an “uncorseted” manner. Returning to the narrator’s emphasis on seeing her make these motions “again,” it could be that the narrator has indeed concluded that this young housewife is indeed unhappy in her marriage. All of these possibilities branch out into realms of speculation, all containing within them the transformative movement and time with which the Flaneur sees the world.

The poem concludes: “The noiseless wheels of my car / rush with a crackling sound over / dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.” This final stanza captures further the themes of motion and time, and even harks back to the speculative connection between the “fallen leaf” and “wooden walls,” given the sound of “dried leaves” as the narrator passes by. That is, Williams used the image of leaves twice in this poem: once “dried,” and once “fallen.” Like with “Aux Imagistes,” these leaves could be literal, but a connection between the “dried” and “fallen” leaves is begging to be made. For example, the plurality to the leaves at the end of the poem leaves open the possibility of being in a crowd, rather than literally in a car. If this woman is a leaf, and he is driving amongst the leaves, then perhaps he is in a crowd, not as isolated as the poem insists. In any case, this poem serves as an illustration of the brief encounters of modern life, the fleeting nature of motion and time, in Williams’ poetry.

These two poems, “Aux Imagistes,” and “The Young Housewife,” are but a sliver of the kind of vision which Williams’ poetry offers. It is as though Williams saw the movements of life and love and lust in every realm of his life. As banal as a plant, or as seductive as an uncorseted young woman, Williams’ penetrating clarity of observation reveals the effects of modernity on the Flaneur. It is as though, borrowing from Walter Benjamin’s writings on the Flaneur, Williams’ delight was not “love at first sight,” but, rather, “love at last sight.”The plant evoked a motion and moniker of temporality to Williams because he was seeing these blossoms about to be “conspired against” by the twigs. He was seeing the blossoms “at last sight” when he stumbled upon them. Also, with the housewife, Williams saw the young housewife, who may not love her husband, who has a story ongoing in time with his own. But he passed her by. He saw her love “at last sight,” as though it may as well be over before it had begun. These kinds of seeing, Benjamin calls the “never” of the poet’s encounter with this notion of “love at last sight.” The “never” Benjamin describes is “the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.” That is, the poet’s “passion” which “bursts” forth is, in Williams’ case, his poetry; Williams was intent on documenting these “nevers.” There is a sensuous delight in the involvement we have–only once!–with the blossom, with the plant, with the housewife, and from which life then continues. Seeing the world as fleeting, fugitive, and full of wonder to be had–including the “nevers”–seems to be the philosophy with which Williams navigated his everyday life. Taking the moment to recognize and transcribe these “nevers” into poetry was, to Williams, more the point than the passing itself.