Hugo Santander Ferreira
Hugo Santander  




Academic papers


Theatre plays






Theatre reviews

Film reviews


Newspaper articles


Short stories

Book reviews


Children's stories

A life in theatre

French site

Spanish site


Email us

Scepticism and faith in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot

    Waiting for Godot might be remembered as the main metaphysical work of the twentieth century, deeper than Heidegger's Sein und Zeit and far more human than Sartre's L'Être et le Néant. From its opening in Paris in 1953, literary critics pointed out the play's allusion to an immaterial, never-present God. But to reduce the complexity of Beckett's play to a single line would be misleading. To that effect, the credit should go to Balzac, who in 1847 wrote Mercadet, a comedy where a character called Godeau is expected to solve everyone's troubles, and who, as in Beckett's play, never appears.
    Waiting for Godot expresses an existential theme: faith. As many Irish children, Beckett received a dogmatic religious education, which was soon questioned by his readings on science and philosophy. But the metaphysical questions raised by the Christian faith haunted Beckett until his death. Centuries before Beckett, Abelard had redefined faith as: “subtantia rerum sperandum” (He 11,1), a definition that may well convey the plot  of Waiting for Godot: “the substance of the things we are waiting for”. Vladimir and Estragon are tortured by the evidence that Godot won't ever come, and yet they maintain their faith in him. Both characters, however, avoid any direct reference to faith. Only on one occasion Vladimir describes Lucky as a “faithful servant” (fr. “fidèle serviteur”), a statement that can be overlooked as a familiar expression.  But the act of being faithful is, as we will see later on, far richer than the immobile definition conveyed by the noun “faith”. Beckett prefers to use two widespread verbs: to believe and to think. Vladimir, Estragon and Pozzo use them as synonymous. In the French version Vladimir replies “Je crois” when asked whether the name of the man they are waiting for is Godot: “I believe so”, a statement that Beckett renders into English as “I think so”.

            For centuries philosophy confined the problem of faith to religion. Theology, on the other hand, reduced the problem of belief to Christian dogma. The immaculate conception of Jesus of Nazareth and his miraculous resurrection were events beyond the grasp of common sense that had to be authenticated by the reduction of faith to absurdity. “I believe, because it does not make sense”, wrote Tertullian in De Carne Christi 5. Faith, nevertheless, is not a condition imposed by a given creed. Aquinas described it as a state of being based on habit and virtue; Hegel as a manifestation of the mind that a philosopher cannot dismiss on the grounds of irrationality. Kierkegaard was, I believe, the first philosopher who understood the close relationship between faith and consciousness. The will to believe is also the need to believe. The interior convictions of a man cannot be dismissed as the incidental product of a historical process. Husserl wrote sharply that consciousness lives originally in the element of belief.

            Unamuno wrote that existence would be unbearable without faith. His interpretation is as evangelical as philosophical. In the gospel according to Saint Matthew, the disciples are on a boat threatened by a tempest. They decide, then, to wake up Jesus. Before calming the sea, Jesus reproaches them for their lack of faith. But scepticism had already appeared in the book of Genesis as the cause of the original sin. In Waiting for Godot the core problem of existence was not faith alone, but the continuous dilemma between faith and scepticism. Willingness to believe, and yet, by the very nature of the mind, reluctance to believe. The solid habit of existing is constantly hindered by the pale touches of thought. In a tour de force, Beckett stages the tragedy of pondering about an illogical world. First, when Pozzo asks Lucky to think. His monologue, as it is well known, is pregnant with metaphysical themes: “Given the existence… of a personal God… with white beard… outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda…”

            Second, when Vladimir and Estragon are tortured by their previous thoughts:

          VLADIMIR. - When you seek you hear.

          ESTRAGON. - You do.

          VLADIMIR. - That prevents you from finding.

          ESTRAGON. - It does.

          VLADIMIR. - That prevents you from thinking.

          ESTRAGON. - You think all the same.

          VLADIMIR. – No, no, it's impossible.

           VLADIMIR. - What is terrible is to have thought.

            In a time dominated by the mirages of nationalism and communism, Beckett realized that no ideology or dogma could fully solve the problems posed by metaphysics. Beckett’s allusion to Vladimir Lenin cannot be overlooked as simple irony. As the main character of The Happy Days, most human beings live immersed in the quicksand of uncertainty, occasionally consoled by glimpses of hope and more often darkened by outbursts of scepticism. Godot must exist, but merely as a hypothesis. Would he appear onto the stage, his very existence would be put into question. At some point Vladimir wonders whether Pozzo is in reality Godot, but he immediately dismisses his conjecture with horror. As with the main character of Mercadet, Vladimir understands that a materialized Godeau/Godot/God will prove to be less useful than an immaterial, absent Godeau/Godot/God. Vladimir's hope works as absolute hope, that's to say, as an ever-protracted realisation of itself.

            When by the end of the second act, Estragon is told that Godot has not come, he asks Vladimir to commit suicide. Faith is fortified by hopes and doubts, rather than by realizations and certainties. Take doubt away from the wealthiest and healthiest man on earth; he will hang himself immediately.  Give hope to the weakest man; he will risk his wealth, his health and even his life.  The characters of Waiting for Godot will never commit suicide, for they have fully accepted the absurdity of hope. It is hope alone which keeps so many men and woman alive under the yoke of so much misery and oppression. The resilience of Vladimir and Estragon is indeed more heroic than the blind despair of Lear and Romeo.

            Faith manifests constantly in believing. Believing in what? Overall in believing, the most rational and still the most illogical manifestation of the mind. Logical minds never believe; they merely accept facts. Scientists are never expected to believe whether the volume of a cone is one-third that of a cylinder on the same base and of the same height, in the same way that surgeons are never expected to believe whether blood circulates or not. These are demonstrable concepts, and as such they are plainly accepted. Science's deep distrust in belief explains why any discussion on faith is rhetorical beforehand, for it does not address a particular subject, such as the soul, God or love, but rather the very act of believing.  To answer positively to the question on whether someone believe or not in love is as naive as to ask a mathematician whether he believes or not that one and two equal three.

            The question on God hovers over play. Will he, by any chance, come to save the characters? To save them of what? Of death? Of hell? But the main doubt posed by the characters of Waiting for Godot is not on the nature of Godot, but rather on the character's faith in their own existence – a life which is never static, but dynamic, fully expressed in the act of waiting. This attitude, which cynics associate to optimism, constitutes the faith that fortifies existence, from that of the first African nomad to that of the last early Roman Christian, from that of the last surviving Jew in Auschwitz to that of the father-of-three unemployed citizen of today. Beckett's character's survival is no less admirable, though, for they have rebuilt their faith from cinders. As Camus's Sisyphus, they survive in a world that has made of sweet religion a rhapsody of words. Their condition, that's to say, the condition of the modern man is certainly absurd, for how can anyone believe in an existence threatened by decay, while suffering from the cradle to the grave, without clear consciousness of birth and death: "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth". The inverted chronology of Vladimir's cry is intentional, for time can only exist by common agreement: “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?”
    Beckett, as Rousseau, believed that most people were able to go on with their lives without realising the absurdity of their toils and pangs. To this belief we owe the unforgettable image of a woman praising life as she is buried alive. Towards the end of Waiting for Godot Vladimir – incarnating Beckett's alter-ego, suffers insomnia while Estragon dozes off.  Vladimir refers then to his partner with a hint of envy: “He'll know nothing. He'll tell me about the blows he received and I'll give him a carrot,” as he deems his suffering greater than Estragon's, for he has discovered the absurdity of effort in a world of uncertainties.
    Beckett expressed out this realization along his life. In Enueg II (1931) he writes:

world world world world
de morituris nihil nisi [From the dead alone]

    And in What is the World (1990):

what is the word -
folly from this -
all this -
folly from all this

    But either by ignorance (e.g., Lucky) or by scepticism all the characters of Waiting for Godot keep on with their lives. As Averroes, they believe that being is better than not-being, and believing better than non-believing, even under the realisation that such belief will never cease. Beckett expresses this paradox in beautiful passages of his work.  In The Unnamable a blind maimed torso ponders:

"I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."

More essays by Hugo Santander in Blogger
Hugo Santander's blogspot

Hugo Santander Ferreira © First Film Productions 2011