How Many Of Us Are There? (on Waiting for Godot)

The following was originally presented in October of 2011 at Hillsdale College, in connection with a production of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot.  The director, James Brandon, arranged brief talks before each performance by faculty members, cleverly entitling the series “Waiting for Waiting for Godot.”

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“How Many of Us Are There?”
Some comments on Waiting for Godot

I’d like to begin by offering a profound thanks to our Theater Department, and especially to James Brandon, for allowing me to be involved in this project.  I especially appreciate the fact that Dr. Brandon has provided me with only minimal instruction regarding what I’m supposed to do, thus making it very easy for me to ignore the instructions.  However, like the main characters in Waiting for Godot, I will probably never stray very far from the neighborhood of its mise en scene.  You’ll have to excuse the obvious problem I have with the fact that some of you, no doubt, are familiar with the play, and some of you are not.  A few of you may have actually already seen this production of the play earlier this week, but many of you have not.  (I saw it myself last night.)  Anyway, the only direction that I’m taking seriously here is the direction to make some comments which, in some way, might help to prepare you to watch the play.

I take my first cue from recent French philosopher Jacques Derrida.  In his book, The Politics of Friendship, which (among other things) seems to undermine the very possibility of fixing or finalizing a distinction between “friend” and “enemy,” Derrida keeps asking this question:  “How many of us are there?”  “How many of us are there?”  If I ask that question, someone here might try to be helpful by counting the bodies in the room.  But that’s not what’s meant here.  What I’m worried about, in relatively straightforward terms, is something like “the actual multiplicity of the supposedly unitary SELF.”  First, I’ll try to help you get a sense of what I mean by that, by teasing you with some academic terms and concepts that I will toss out without lengthy explanation.  Then I will give some indications of how this “teasing” might inform or enter into your experience of tonight’s performance, and of the play in general.

Jacques Derrida is credited with popularizing the term “deconstruction,” and with being a deconstructionIST.  Deconstruction is almost universally understood as something that one can do.  This is not only true in academic circles nowadays, but even on the Food Network, where chefs lay the ingredients of dish “X,” separated from each other, on a longish plate, and call the dish they have produced “deconstructed X” (for example, I saw a “deconstructed BLT sandwich” one day).  Derrida himself is clear throughout his writings that deconstruction is not something that someone does, is not a mere destruction or dismantling of something, and (perhaps most surprising) is not a method used to attack or refute something.  I bring this up because my starting with Derrida might be seen as an invitation to see me here as a deconstructionist, or at least to see my presentation as something like a deconstructionist approach to the play.  I won’t simply deny this, but I will point out that it is one of a number of labels that you might stamp on what I’m doing here, allowing you to know, even before you’ve attempted to understand it, what the appropriate reaction is.  Wait.  Be patient.  Don’t expect that what we have to do here is to fix or to finalize something.

A second cue comes from an early 20th century philosopher/social psychologist named George Herbert Mead, about whom I teach nearly every semester in my sociology courses.  Mead is famous for writing about how each of us has a “social self.”  The self, for Mead, consists of both “I” and “Me.”  “I” is the self as subject, the part of my self that does the acting.  “Me” is the self as object, the part of me that is acted upon, and of which predications are made.  “I” never become an object of action or experience, either for others or for myself.  “Me” becomes what it is, both because it is initially shaped by being an object for others, and eventually by being an object for “I,” as I enter into the project of shaping “Me.”  Mead explicitly suggests that the “Me,” though we usually approach it as a unitary thing, is actually not so.  Strictly speaking, there are “Me’s” (plural).  Mead writes:  “A multiple personality is in a certain sense normal.”  (For those who have seen the play, I’m hearing this today in the voice and tone of Pozzo in the first act.)  “A multiple personality is in a certain sense normal.”  There might be as many “Me’s” as there are people whom I might interact with (including myself), or situations in which I might be treated as an object of action.

Mead seems, as far as I can tell, to assume that there is only one “I” for each of us, but this is not because it is either clearly defined or clearly experienced in this way.  It is partly because Mead seems to associate our very ability to be an actor with our having (or being, or inhabiting, or whatever) a tangible and therefore countable physical body.  But he is also clear that the “I” is not countable at all, because the “I” is never an object.  Even I cannot turn around fast enough to catch my “I” in the act.  What I get is always a “Me.”

One might remember that Sigmund Freud (and psychoanalytic theory in general) has also suggested the multiplicity of selfhood for over a century now.  As I tell my students regularly, it can be helpful to compare Mead’s view of self to Freud’s view of the psyche, as long as you remember that in his writings, Freud did not originally use the technical-sounding terms ‘ego,’ ‘id,’ and ‘superego.’  He used ordinary German words to distinguish the “I,” the “it,” and the “over-I.’  I won’t chase this comparison any more here, because that stamp is even more familiar and readily available to some of you in order to put my comments in their “proper” place.

Now, the way in which I want to suggest you consider Waiting for Godot, given the sketchy comments I’ve made so far, is not so complicated.  There are a total of five characters in the play.  One of them appears only very briefly at the end of each act, leaving four main characters, and in fact there are two main characters who spend most of the play together on the stage.  The person named in the title of the play is not really a character.  Godot never shows up.  [Telling you this is a “spoiler” in pretty much the same sense as telling someone who hasn’t seen Titanic that the ship sinks.]

But how many characters are there?  Be careful to note how uncertain the answer to this question really is as the play unfolds.  This is most clear in the case of the boy, who appears at the end of each act, but who (it is suggested) may actually be at least two identical brothers, one of whom is beaten by Godot (apparently his employer or master) and one of whom is not.  (Do notice, by the way, how the motif of beating or being beaten recurs.)  But there are also problems with whether the characters Pozzo and Lucky, as they appear in the second act, are in fact the same Pozzo and Lucky who appear in the first act.  And as you might expect by now, I would urge you to consider whether Vladimir and Estragon, the two main characters, are “really” two individuals, or one, or more than two.  It is even suggested more than once that one of the characters who appears on the stage is actually Godot, though Beckett (who notoriously resisted offering any expansion on what is already in the text of the play) is apparently on record as saying that this suggestion is “not true.”

More important, for the approach I am so vaguely suggesting here, is that you remain open, as you watch the play, to the idea that what you are watching is not some set of distinct individuals at all, but different parts of your own self, different “Me’s,” as Mead might say, that are somehow associated with the “I” that you are (presumably).  You may love them or hate them, find them sympathetic or be repulsed by them, but understand that they are yours, somehow.  All of this will be (or should be) very disconcerting, very unnerving, very threatening.  That’s the point, of course.  I believe that one could make the point even more unnerving and threatening by wondering who, or where, or how many, is the “I” in all of this; I believe this latter suggestion becomes more salient when one reads Derrida.  “How many of us are there?”

Now, that’s the main suggestion that I want to make, but it seems to me that there is another matter I should address explicitly.  I have not mentioned religious or specifically Christian themes in my comments so far, yet it is well known that the play is saturated with religious and specifically Christian imagery, allusions, and even explicit references.  One might think either about Beckett’s play, or about the philosophical and theoretical material to which I am referring (or both), that they are inimical to a Christian perspective, or perhaps to any religious perspective.  One might think that the very idea of the multiplicity of the self is an idea that must be rejected by defenders of what, around these parts, we insistently encapsulate in the phrase “Judeo-Christian Tradition.”  One might suspect that such modernist or postmodernist  commodities as Waiting for Godot, pragmatist or psychoanalytic views of the self, deconstruction, theater of the absurd, existentialism, sociology, or anything associated with the Democratic party are all manifestations of an emptiness for which our tradition has the answer, and what is most important is to articulate that answer, to treat it as finalized.

There are various ways in which such suspicions might be articulated.  And I cannot hope to address even a few of those possible articulations thoroughly and responsibly in this context.  I can only give you some tentative hints as to why I think it is worthwhile to be patient, to spend a great deal of time struggling over exactly what the questions are, even if we are committed to there being answers for them.

Religiously, I speak as one who, to borrow another phrasing from Derrida, “rightly passes for” a Christian, though I confess that I suffer from a fair amount of skepticism regarding the degree to which there actually is something in particular that we all clearly mean, in common, when we use the word ‘Christian.’  (And I think it’s even worse with the word ‘religion.’)  But let me offer some concluding comments as someone who does self-identify as a Christian, and sometimes also more generally as “religious,” to any of you who would self-identify in a similar way.

First, I don’t intend the idea of the multiplicity of self to entail that there is not, in some sense, such a thing (note the singular) as a self, or to deny that each one of us either has or is a self (singular again).  I don’t intend to reject out of hand any of the traditional uses of the word ‘soul’ in our tradition, with their implications of unity and/or simplicity (though I do reject the idea that there is ONE idea of what a “soul” is that is THE idea of the soul in our tradition).  I definitely do not intend to reject the hope of eternal life for each of us individually, though it does seem to me that most Christians pay little attention to how the eternal life envisioned in the Bible centers upon the resurrection of the body rather than the endless survival of an immaterial soul.  (Parentheses again: Consider how parts of the body are important in the play, and how the characters keep looking into their shoes, hats, and other clothing, apparently wondering if anything dwells there besides a part of the body.)  What I am urging, I believe, is not a perspective that is in any way automatically incompatible with Christianity or with “religion” in general.  You may decide in the long run that I’m wrong about that.  I’m only asking here that you not assume it at the start.

Second, I don’t intend to reject out of hand the idea that Waiting for Godot represents a kind of desperate questioning by human beings to which religion (or specifically Christianity, or most likely some specific version of Christianity) has THE ANSWER.  I’m pretty sure (most days) that my own hope is in this sort of conviction, generally speaking.  But here is what I would recommend, what I would ask, what I would urge:  Please, let us not think that I can simply deploy and drop the answer like a bomb on any questioner I encounter, without long, deliberate, and careful consideration of what exactly is going on in the questioning; without patiently and sympathetically listening to the questioning; without realizing that even when I commit myself to THE ANSWER, this apparently will not prevent further questioning, either by others, or by parts of myself.

I have tried to be brief, and thus have been hopelessly vague, perhaps.  I can’t promise further clarity, but what would you like to pursue a bit further with me?

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