Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot as Criticism of Christianity
- Length: 2606 words (7.4 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Samuel Beckett may have denied the use of Christian mythology in Waiting for Godot, but the character of Lucky proves otherwise. We can read Lucky as a symbolic figure of Christ, and, as such, his actions in the play carry a criticism of Christianity, suggesting that the merits of Christianity have decreased to the point where they no longer help man at all.
The parallels between Christ and Lucky are strong. Lucky, chained with a rope, is the humiliated prisoner, much like Jesus was the prisoner of the Romans after Judas turned him in. Estragon beats, curses, and spits on Lucky exactly as the Roman treated Jesus when preparing him for crucifixion. Lucky carries the burden of Pozzo's bags like a perpetual cross, and he is being led to a public fair where he will be mocked and sold; the Romans paraded Jesus on the hill where for public scorn. As Jesus fell three times under the weight of his burden, Lucky falls many times with the weight of the luggage, stool, coat, and picnic basket. Furthermore, Estragon wipes Lucky's eyes-like Veronica wiped Jesus' face-so he will "feel less forsaken" (p. 21b), which alludes directly to Jesus' cry from the cross: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" [My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?] (Mark 15:34). Lucky slowly chokes as the rope cuts into his neck; crucifixion suffocated Jesus.
Pozzo, paraphrasing Estragon's question, then asks a rhetorical question concerning Lucky: "Why he doesn't make himself comfortable?" (p.21a). This question refers specifically to the taunt spectators hurled at Jesus, "Save yourself, why don't you? Come down off the cross if you are God's son," and refers generally to Christ's mission of suffering on earth (Matthew 26:40). Pozzo replies that Lucky doesn't want to drop the luggage because "he wants to mollify me, so that I will give up the idea of parting with him," and Lucky "imagines that when I see how well he carries I'll be tempted to keep him on in that capacity" (p. 21a). Likewise, Jesus believed that he had to carry out his burden-crucifixion-to awaken man's faith in God for time to come. Jesus commissioned his apostles to "make disciples of all nations...teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And always know that I am with you" (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus wanted humanity to act in his own memory, or to keep himself on in that capacity, which was that of teacher, comforter, and ultimately deliverer of salvation.
In that vein, Pozzo says he took on Lucky explicitly, and Christianity by extension, to "understand beauty, grace, truth of the first water" (p. 22b). But he soon feels both have outlived their usefulness:
Vladimir: After having sucked all the good out of him you chuck him away like. . . a banana skin. Really. . .
Pozzo: (groaning, clutching his head) I can't bear it. . .any longer. . .the way he goes on. . .you've no idea. . .it's terrible. . .he must go. . .(he waves his arms). . .I'm going mad. . .(he collapses, his head in his hands). . .I can't bear it. . . any longer. . .
. . .
Pozzo: (sobbing) He used to be so kind. . .so helpful. . .and entertaining. . .my good angel. . .and now. . .he's killing me (pps. 22b-23a)
This exchange establishes a time frame with two windows, then and now. In the past, Pozzo had benefitted from Lucky; now, the benefits are gone. Something, therefore, has occurred in the time between the two windows that has reduced Lucky's capabilities and overall effect (this change will be further explored later). Furthermore, it is an abstract effectiveness, rather than a material effectiveness, that has deteriorated because Lucky remains an adequate luggage carrier. Lucky can no longer offer what soothed and satisfied Pozzo's spirit; instead, he torments it. When Pozzo says that Lucky is killing him, he is not referring to any violent acts by Lucky, but rather to what constitutes spiritual abuse. While he was once a benefit, Lucky now becomes a liability to Pozzo, prompting his plans to discard the slave. Describing the disposal of a faithful human in terms of the comic symbol of a banana peel further reduces the worth of Lucky: a banana peel is trash.
If we consider Lucky as a symbol for a dying Christ, this exchange shows two things. First, Jesus' redemptive sacrifice is no longer worth what it once was. Second, this failure translates into the spiritual failure, or even the liability, of Christianity.
Just as the worth of Jesus' sacrifice has changed, the actions and words of Lucky have also degenerated: "He used to dance the farandole, the fling, the brawl, the jig, the fandango, the hornpipe. He capered. For joy. Now that's the best he can do" (p. 27a). Lucky's broad range of mirthful dances has now been reduced to a single sequence of stiff movements performed on command to cheer up two thieves. The reduction and sacrifice of an articulate Christ to a suffering man is now a mechanized action for amusing bored men. Further, the sacrifice eventually will be tossed like the banana peel.
The allusion to Christianity suggests that, like the dance, the religion has changed as the actual foundations of its faith-Jesus' actions and words-have deteriorated from graceful fluidity to rusty creaking. Christ's eloquent surface stories, which underneath held true meaning, have become Lucky's words, and though Lucky "used to think prettily once," he now speaks in a running babble that borders on unintelligibility (p. 26b). Lucky's speech is like a runaway parable; his verbal "tirade" almost conceals all meaning. Upon close examination, however, it furthers the idea of the dwindling value of the Christian faith:
Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with a white beard. . .who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly. . . (p. 28b)
Lucky talks in complexity, mimicking scientific style. He states givens and cites texts, but his speech lacks the coherence and organization of a science. The quaquaquaqua loosely translates into series of stuttered "which's" and shows a roughness far from the "beauty" and "grace" once shown Pozzo (22b). Underneath this scientific incoherence, though, Lucky states the subject of his discourse: Christ, the "personal God." The opposition of the scientific tone and the topic of faith hints at the constant struggle for one to find its place within the other. In this speech, faith and science actually detract from each other, diminishing both of their values. This duel between ideas and language will come up again in the future exploration of Bishop Berkeley, a scientific theologian.
As Christians believe, Christ was God as well as a human, with all of humanity's accompanying strengths and weaknesses. He was literally God as a person ("personal God"), and he lived among heights of humanity's shortcomings, which Lucky paraphrases in three cryptic "A" words. "Apathia" is a lack of caring; "aphasia" is an inability to speak; and "athambia's" meaning is unknown to me, but I would point out its proximity to atheism, or the belief in no God. Christ was introduced into the "A's" of a spiritually empty world, which lacked interest, expression, and belief in God. With his simple, yet powerful words and his miracles, Christ had the tools and the opportunity to fill man's hollow. Yet the emptiness is still present-it is even the stimulus for Lucky to mention the three "A's" in his present discourse. Christ failed to fulfill his purpose.
Lucky continues his tirade in the same manner, speaking of the antipodal places in Christ's teachings, heaven and hell:
...that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm so calm so calm with a calm which even though is intermittent is better than nothing... (p. 28b)
Lucky's stilted rhetoric generally restates what Christ preached, but it also shows how Christ's teachings can be confusing and contradictory. One way to interpret the punctuation-less passage is to separate "blast hell" from "to heaven" and treat them as two separate commands. The command then becomes an instruction to turn away from the temptations of hell and look toward the peace of heaven. This is, of course, the central theme of many of Christ's teachings. Why then would Lucky express it in such a way that allows one to read the phrases together? Connected, the passage tells us to "blast hell to heaven," or place sin and temptation together in the middle of heaven. This would not only disrupt heaven's peace, but also flatten the entire structure and hierarchy of Christianity, placing God and the Devil, Good and Evil, on a level plane. Furthermore, why would Lucky point out the weaknesses of the faith, that heaven's calm is "intermittent" and merely "better than nothing?" Because the creation of a faith immediately creates the shortcomings of the faith as a corollary. Christ's words, as retold by Lucky, establish the spatial hierarchy of the Christian faith and simultaneously flatten that same space, as well as the same faith.
Lucky is not finished; he persists, exploring a similar idea:
. . .that man in short that man in brief in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation wastes and pines wastes and pines and concurrently simultaneously. . .
The body's excretory system parallels Christianity. The act of eating necessitates the removal of what was eaten; likewise, the act of believing necessitates the questioning and ultimate removal of the same belief. Constant eating yields constant defecation, with no net satiation. Similarly, ingesting the faith removes the same faith immediately after the body processes it and finds only enough value to sustain, never to satisfy. And sustenance is not enough. Just as the value of $100 today will be worth much less in just ten years, as man progresses though time with no net improvement, his value actually decreases, or "wastes." And man pines for more. Christianity, therefore, has only a limited sustaining effect in the short-term (just as it touches man's lips), and as a long-term, advancing faith, it is a waste. It flows out of man's bowels the very next moment.
Lucky then begins to explore how the faith is reduced, placing his argument in the context of his pseudo-scientific talk: "no matter what matter the facts are there" (p. 29a). The dual "matters" allude to Bishop Berkeley, whose name appeared in the book five lines above this quote (p. 29a). Berkeley was an Irish Bishop who attempted in his writings to reconcile science and the Christian doctrine. He said that matter exists if it is perceived by some mind, and that matter, therefore, exists because God is always thinking of everything. In effect Berkeley was able to harmonize God and science. Science exists because God thinks about it; thinking about science constitutes God. Now the Bishop is dead, literally and metaphorically. Lucky's tirade makes a weak attempt to revive the Bishop's ideas by putting the language of science and faith together. But instead of harmonizing, they clash. In the context of this dissonance, in a desperate attempt to save faith in the face of questioning, the quote is a command just to accept the evidences of faith even if science disagrees- "no matter what matter." Faith now disregards science, and because of this, it is in a much weaker position to defend questions without scientific support to back it up. Christianity's strength has been reduced.
Lucky also shows the devaluation of the Christian faith with the constant oblique references to "Cunard." Sir Samuel Cunard founded the line of Cunard steamships in the mid- nineteenth century. His ships played a pivotal role in the Crimean War (1853-1856), which was caused by a dispute between Russia, France, and Turkey over Holy Places in Jerusalem. This reference is particularly apt because in early 1948, the year Beckett wrote this play, Israel became a nation containing many of the same Holy Places. The very next day the Arabs, composed partially of Christians, attacked the Israelis and stormed East Jerusalem and the Holy Places. Men, at the very time Beckett conceived Godot, were murdering each other to possess the city where one religion of peace and sharing began. Christianity, in part, made the city of Jerusalem special, and that act, in turn, destroys what is most special: life.
Lucky finally brings to a close his discourse with an encyclopedia of unheeded evidence of Christianity:
. . .in spite of the tennis on on the the beard the flames the tears the stones so blue so calm alas alas on on the skull the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the labors abandoned left unfinished. . . (p. 29b)
This portion of the text points in many directions toward one underlying purpose. Some creative research seems in order. Tennis was originally named jeu de paume, which translates "a game of the palm." This could allude to Christ's stigmata, which he showed to Thomas as evidence of his identity and resurrection. The flames allude to the Pentecostal flames that descended upon the apostles as tongues of fire, filling them with the Holy Spirit and allowing them to speak in foreign tongues so as to communicate the word of God to foreigners.
The tears, I think, refer to Mary Magdalene's tears upon finding Jesus' tomb empty. She then saw a man who asked her why she was weeping, to which she replied because Jesus' body had been removed from the tomb. That man then revealed himself to be Jesus, and Mary became the first witness of Jesus' resurrection and ascension. Likewise, the stone refers to the giant stone which was sealed over the opening of Jesus' tomb. According to Matthew, an angel appeared to the tomb's guards, moved the stone as if it were a pebble, and made the guards believers. Lastly, the skull refers to Golgotha, or Skull Place, where Jesus was crucified. At this place, according to the New Testament, the earth shook as God eclipsed the sun at the moment Jesus died, fulfilling Christ's own prophecy of the events of his death. The passage lists evidence of evidence, but its fragmentation and sheer eclecticism work to undermine the value of the evidence, and by extension, devalue the faith.
Still, each allusion is an allusion to evidence, which makes the final words of the quote even more significant: "labors abandoned left unfinished." Despite all of the witnesses and miracles, words and actions, the Christian faith is abandoned and left unfinished. The Christian campaign, even with Christ's revelations, can't outshadow its empirical shortcomings and truly mollify man. Thus it fails.
People at one time experienced and believed the evidences when they happened. People at one time gained help, or at least comfort or entertainment, from Christ and Christianity. But just as Christ then abandoned his life on the cross, leaving his future unfinished, man has now abandoned the Christian faith, never translating its teachings into reality. One could say man only followed Christ's example.
The tirade finally ends when Pozzo, Estragon, and Vladimir triumphantly tackle Lucky, like the mob which turns upon Jesus, silencing him, shouting "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Lucky serves Pozzo well, insisting on carrying his burden. But his burden is an empty symbol: bags filled with sand. In the same way, Christ, by his example, taught humanity to shoulder burden, but, according to Waiting for Godot, the burden is not worth carrying. Christ was both the beginning and the end of Christianity, just as Lucky began his service with high intentions, but ends as a slave who speaks only gibberish, on his way to the auction block. In the end, they both destroy what they hoped to create.