Accept the Absurd: Beckett and Kierkegaard, Godot and Christ

Beckett’s creation incarnates everything that “Theater of the Absurd” has come to represent. Two hobos, Estragon and Vladimir, are waiting for Godot (pronounced in the production GOD-oh). They have an appointment with him, but it is not clear to them or to us where or when the meeting is supposed to take place. Standing on a country road, the hobos speak the following opening lines:

Estragon: “Nothing to be done.”

Vladimir: “I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir be reasonable, you haven’t tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. So there you are again.”

This exchange, as well as almost all the others between the two characters, suggests both the confusion in their communication and the aimlessness of their existence. They often speak past one another. Any hope for meaning is tied to their meeting Godot. Stuck in a dead end, they won’t move on. Or rather, they cannot move on because the future looks as pointless as the present.

The pronunciation of the name of the anticipated visitor emphasizes that they are waiting for God. Yet the divine visitor never arrives. Years ago Eugene O’Neill wrote, “The playwright today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it—the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in and to comfort its fears of death with.”

The death or absence of God is the horizon against which some of the most highly respected playwrights of the 20th century created their work. I think of Luigi Pirandello’s six characters searching for a meaningful narrative, of Edward Albee’s angry creations making contact only through violence, of Harold Pinter’s people mouthing non-sequiturs as they search for their identity and of Eugene O’Neill’s Tyrone family looking for forgiveness. All these characters exist in a milieu in which God’s absence has serious consequences for human fulfillment. All of them struggle against what Paul Tillich called the threat of nonbeing: the threat of self-rejection, guilt, despair, fate and death. Beckett has taken the premise of God’s death to its logical (or illogical) conclusion.

Of course we could look to any of the atheistic existentialists for insights into the absurd. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” wrote: “And when we speak of ‘abandonment’…we only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end…. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon, either within or outside himself.”

Dramatizing God’s “absence right to the end,” Beckett has gone beyond philosophical reflection and offered theatergoers an actual experience of absurdity.

It is as Martin Esslin writes in his book The Theatre of the Absurd: “The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition, it merely presents it in being.… This is the difference… between the idea of God in the works of Thomas Aquinas or Spinoza and the intuition of God in those of St. John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart—the difference between theory and experience.”

Adventure in Grace

The inadequacy of reason and logic that the Theatre of the Absurd depicts and its attempt to offer an experience of the absurd are what have joined Beckett and Kierkegaard in my mind. Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism and a deeply committed Christian, characterized the Incarnation as absurd. By “absurdity” Kierkegaard meant not what is lacking in meaning but rather what is full of mystery, the superabundance of meaning, the supra-rational, that which is beyond human comprehension.

For the Danish religious thinker, human reason confronting the Incarnation was inadequate; it could neither prove the Christ-event nor understand it completely. Logic cannot help. How could the divine become human? It sounds absurd but it is true. How could eternity enter time? Absurd, but true. How could the Infinite become the finite? Also absurd but true. To accept the Incarnation and experience Christ, a leap of faith is necessary. An objective, impartial, scientific approach to the Incarnation, an approach so applauded by Kierkegaard’s contemporaries as well as ours, could not reach the reality of the God-man, who is the Truth.

In speaking of the absurd Kierkegaard meant mystery, awesome and wonderful, which or who calls us into relationship. Unlike the absurd as depicted by Beckett, the absurd of the Christian existentialist Kierkegaard involves us and invites us into the future.

Two crucial moments in Beckett’s play highlight the difference. At the end of the first act Estragon says, “Well, shall we go?” to which Vladimir responds, “Yes, let’s go.” They do not move. Then at the end of the second act Vladimir says, “Well? Shall we go?” and Estragon answers, “Yes, let’s go.” Again they do not move. They cannot move because without God, there is no direction or goal to the human journey. Adrift, the two are pilgrims without a homeland. For Kierkegaard, however, the leap toward the “absurdity” of the Incarnate God brings about an encounter with infinite love. It is the beginning of a relationship that transforms human living into an adventure in grace that extends beyond the grave.

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