Sunday, November 27, 2011

Waiting for Godot -- Reading Godot, the conglomerative effect

      The heart of Lois Gordon's book is her interpretation of the various features of the play in terms of Freudian conglomeration.  She says:

"Freud uses the term conglomeration in the process of collecting the fragmentary components of the dream.  This is a concept akin to the mental operation of "secondary revision", which gives final shape and form to the compressed dream image.  In following Freud's procedure, I shall speak of the conglomerative effect or conglomerative refrain in order to indicate what traditionally would be called the dominant theme of the play, always in the form of thesis and antithesis."(pg. 75)

Thus, we see the various verbal formulations, including the ambiguous or self-contradictory speeches, dialogues, stage directions(when compared with the dialogue), as if they were disorganized components of a dream.  The assemblage of a theme is therefore analogous to the assembling of a narrative and meaning among the pieces of a dream.

She says of Lucky's monologue that it is
"a disjointed worldview of a onetime philosopher-poet: (1) The universe is ruled by an enigmatic, capricious deity...;(2) the human creature 'wastes and pines' despite all the 'strides' and 'labors of men', intellectual, social, and physical; (3) only a stony, indifferent earth survives....Almost every word and activity in the play is an incremental repetition of this worldview"(pp. 76-77)

She indeed proceeds to show how the main characters in the play manifest this theme.  While there is nothing particularly Oedipal about the play in the Freudian sense, there is the sense that each character is at the mercy of forces both inside and out.  I didn't get the depth psychology I asked for in the last post, but I did get a connection with dreams and their interpretations.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Waiting for Godot -- 'Reading Godot' by Lois Gordon, entry 2

"The power of Waiting for Godot derives from its exposure of the emotional life in counterpoint to the existential condition -- Beckett's revelation of the unconscious feelings that accompany the quest for salvation in a world bereft of meaning. Godot's much-repeated 'Let's go.(they do not move)' epitomizes not just the tension of individual action in a meaningless world; it also demonstrates the limits of the will set against the contraining and deterministic forces of a controlling psyche."(pg. 70-71)

Existentialism without the freedom.   She asserts the influence of Freudianism on Beckett all the way down to the set design, props, the direction the characters walk and how they move about on the stage:
"It is as though Beckett were weaving into his existential landscape a map of the unconscious world, again, either as it functions simultaneously with rational thinking or is transformed into a dreamscape...Each object, word, and movement ultimately becomes an emblem of the psychological, not just the philosophical, reality of waiting."(pg.74)

The above quotation throws the gauntlet down; I want her to pony up examples of the depth psychology in the midst of the philosophical condition of waiting -- I can hardly wait!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Waiting for Godot -- "Reading Godot" by Lois Gordon part 1 of many

"Werner Heisenberg and quantum physics, no less than Freud and Sartre, have demonstrated that the limits of our universe are determined by the limits of our measuring instruments, whether they are atomic clocks, blood pressure cups, or nouns and verbs (Gordon pg. 18)

I usually dislike it when humanities' types bring in physics to illustrate some point about relativism etc..., but I make an exception in this case.  It is true that there is a fundamental limit to our ability to locate and measure the momentum of particles precisely, and that ultimately science is about what we can measure, and there are apparently limitations on that, and thus on our ability to know.  We spin our theories based on what we can possibly measure. Perhaps we assume that the limitations of what we can measure are the limitations of the universe itself, an obvious intellectual error, but just as there are undoubtedly aspects of the physical universe beyond our ability to measure, there are perhaps truths of our condition that are beyond nouns and verbs and plays.  Beckett is, according to Gordon, is a quester in the face of the "mess" he descibes.  He describes the quest for order and meaning in a universe devoid of meaning, and whose truth is likely always beyond us.

This, she says, Beckett does in contradistinction to the quests of other modernists:
"He has repudiated the modernists' mission, virtually Dantesque in scope, to recreate a meaningful world by scaffolding its fragments on to the symmetries of historical and mythical patterns.  For Joyce, Eliot, and the others, the fractured present could ultimately be reconstructed in the terms of past traditions and past value systems.  Theirs was an art of positive faith, implicitly based on the boundless power of the human will."(pg. 14)
This will included the Will to Truth, Science(even if the truth is ultimately unpleasant) etc...  It is fascinating that she compares all this to Dante.  I think she is saying they are, despite themselves, seeking the same kind of integration Dante achieved in the Commedia(one of my favorite works, up there with Hamlet and Macbeth, also representatives of a world picture that also could be as totalizing as the medieval world of Dante).  She credits Beckett with being more postmodern, more pessimistic than even the existentialists. She says that the positive in Beckett's work is different than that of the modernists:
"It arises in the absence of any redemptive system, and because it is inevitably eclipsed by inner or outer forces, when it appears it is poignantly ennobling...In the main, however, Beckett's work focuses on the feeling of fragmentation and disintegration that occurs when one lives in the absence of theological or cultural accsurances and when one functions within the a priori constraints of language and the psyche."(pg. 15)
This suggests that the 'scorn' mentioned by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, is a kind of redemptive dimension to existentialism, one that Beckett lacks!

Beckett's characters are unable to lift themselves permanently above their fate; they are, as are Vladimir and Estragon, unable to move, despite their desire to do so.  There is no existential victory over fate, only an occasional poking of the head up before it is pushed back down. In summary, Beckett, who says he was not a philosopher by trade, is already beyond the existential, though the existential dimension runs as an undercurrent throughout Waiting for Godot.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Waiting for Godot and Myth of Sisyphus part 2

     I will continue an examination of Waiting for Godot by introducing a selection from the brilliant book, Reading Godot, by Lois Gordon.  When the actual book arrives from Amazon I will read over everything she has to say.  Gordon begins this section with
"In a world devoid of belief systems, the mind and heart cry out for validation, for the assurance that life has meaning and actions have purpose.  One may accept, as an existential truth, the assumption that despite the individual's endeavors to comprehend or change the world, "there is no new thing under the sun"(Ecclesiastes), and, as Beckett puts it, "the tears of the world are of a constant quantity..."  But one also occupies a world of temporal measurement.  Time passes and one ages, and, facing these inescapable facts, one journeys with tenacious will through the arbitrary divisions of time and space holding onto goals and belief systems as if they were absolute(Bloom pg. 124)

We inhabit both the existential void and also the world of particular time and place.  Like Odysseus searching for his home but lost on an endless sea, we seek solace in the stories of our home culture that give us an enclosed sense, the enclosure we need to derive meaning, whereas we really inhabit a wide-open space with no landmarks, where nothing ever changes, and there is just boundless sea and sky.  In the case of Waiting for Godot, we have a spare landscape with a single tree, which is barren until the second act, when it suddenly has leaves -- one is reminded here of the way time passes on the island of Circe, many years pass without being noticed, have seasons changed between acts?  How long has the waiting been going on?

Godot has meant many things to many people over the years, perhaps it means homecoming and definition.  Without Godot there is purposeless waiting.  But Godot never comes.  The heroes never get home; they don't even have a home.  The world itself is foreign and one is a stranger in it and to oneself.

Waiting, and its weight, must be where people get the analogy between this play and Sisyphus.  As Sisyphus 'waits' until the rock gets to the top and then tumbles down, they wait for Godot.  The wait is arduous, for Godot it is not really a physical exertion necessarily, though Estragon is beaten daily, but the burden is the burden of waiting itself, the need for distraction.  I think of the times when my own mind tries to occupy itself in the presence of menial, tedious work.  I suppose at those moments there is the possibility, for Camus, of a scornful victory over fate.
"For Camus, Sisyphus's perserverence , in literal spite or contempt of the meaninglessness of his task, defined his superiority.  By ignoring the irrationality of his fate and focusing on the blue of the sky and the texture of the rock, he could exult in his defiance of his fate."(pg. 125)
Gordon assures us that Beckett's heroes lack the defiance; they are hardly superior to their fate.  She also reminds us that there is an uncertainty about their location or the day, what they were doing yesterday, or even what they are doing at present.  They constantly repeat the litany that they can't go because they are waiting on Godot.  In all these ways then, Beckett's heroes are not superior to their lot as are Camus' rebels.   

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Waiting For Godot and the Myth of Sisyphus part 1

     I bought the Harold Bloom 'Modern Critical Interpretations' edition for 'Waiting for Godot' and read several of the essays.  All of the essays mention Albert Camus's short essay, 'The Myth of Sisyphus', so I figured I would start by looking over this essay and quoting what some of the interpreter's say; this is an essay I first read in high school and it was a poignant experience to read it again as I remember the effect the essay had on me all those years ago.

     One of the first things I noticed when I got my old copy of the essay was an underlining I had made in the essay;  I would have done this some time around 1982:
"But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed the water and sun, warm stones, and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness."(pg. 88-89)
When I recall the bouts with depression, the sense of futility, along with the melodramas of my adolescence, this line, with its emphasis on simple, natural, pleasures, provided me with real solace.  I asked myself many times why life was better than death, and this line speaks to this question.   It also brings to mind the fact that in Dante's Inferno, most of those in Hell want to be remembered to those up in the world -- all, of course, except Guido De Montefeltro.  Those in Hell relished the thought of the 'bright world above'; for me,  this line helped me prefer life to death, viewing death as oblivion with no warm stones or anything at all for that matter.

     Sisyphus is torn from the natural world he loved made to push an immense boulder all the way up a mountain only to have it roll back down.  Camus says:
"If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious.  Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd.  But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious."

Camus seems to believe that Sisyphus has a kind of victory in his scorn over his fate, when he turns from the top of the mountain and walks back down he has a moment of consciousness.  At this moment he scorns the gods, his fate, and returns to his rock.  I guess I never believed Camus here and I think Beckett backs me up.  That is, there is no victory.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


My next series of articles will be explorations of the dramatic works of Samuel Beckett.  I have read some of his plays and he is becoming one of my favorite author.  So get ready for the ABSURD.  I will start next time with Waiting for Godot.

Derek Parfit -- The Final Entry

After a long, tedious, explanation of what is wrong with various versions of "Subjective Theories", without really dealing with what I would call the 'real problem', nihilism, he talks about Kant. I have to say that I find actually reading the text unbearable.  So, I'm going back to the summary to see if he gives me an argument I can sink my teeth into. So, after skimming through much more tedium I  violated all canons of what is good and decent by going right to the "conclusions" section!

Sigh, and here is what I was treated to:
"everyone ought always to do whatever would make things go best."(pg. 74)   Let's read that again:
"everyone ought always to do whatever would make things go best."(pg. 74)  I need a 600 page book for this?

Here's another gem:
"When there is only one set of principles that everyone could rationally will to be universal laws, these are the only principles, we can argue, that no one could reasonably reject."(pg.74)

How ZEN.

And here is his "Triple Theory":
"An act is wrong when such acts are disallowed by the principles of that are optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable."(pg. 74)


The one thing that has come out of this is that the Kantians and the consequentialists are, when properly formulated, trying to say the same thing(see my previous post).  Ultimately, rational beings want things to go best and those who want things to go best should think things through. There are things we should desire and things we shouldn't: we should desire the things that we have reasons to desire based on what makes things go best after careful deliberation; we should reject those desires that would make them go badly.  So, this is not a desire based theory, it's not quite a purely detached, unfeeling theory either. I shouldn't make so much fun of an obviously sincere and well-read scholar, but sometimes these arguments seem a bit foolish and they end up not accomplishing what we really need: the kind of moral foundations we can use against those who would do bad stuff just because they want to.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Derek Parfit -- Finally saying something

I suppose it's not surprising that it's easier to poke holes in the opposition's theories than it is to put forward one of your own; that's one reason why the next chapter, "Subjective Theories", is better.  He gives the example of running away from a snake in the mistaken belief that running will save your life(you should stand still).  He says:
"Subjectivists might claim that
(A) reasons are provided only by desires that depend on true beliefs,
You have no reason to run away, (A) implies, because your desire depens on the false belief that this act would save your life".(pg. 107)

He then defines the Telic Desire Theory:

"We have most reason to do whatever would best fulfil or achieve our present telic desires or aims."(pg. 108)

He then says that the problem here is that sometimes our telic desires are based on false beliefs.
Thus we have
"the Error-Free Desire Theory: We have most reason to do whatever would best fulfil or achieve our present error-free telic desires or aims."(pg. 109)

He follows this up with the "informed desire" theory.

He is moving us toward the following formulation:
"the Deliberartive Theory: We have most reason to do whatever, after fully informed and rational deliberation, we would choose to do."(pg. 110)

This is a master stroke!!  He says this formulation, Deliberative Subjectivism, is often confused with Objectivism(Kant, not Rand).   But there is a bit difference:

"Instead of claiming that what we ought to choose depends on our reasons, these Subjectivists claim that our reasons depend on what, after such deliberation, we would choose."(pg. 112)


"Objectivists appeal to normative claims about what, after ideal deliberation, we have reasons to choose, and ought rationally to choose.   These Subjectivists appeal to psychological claims about what, after such deliberation, we would in fact choose."(pg. 112)

This coming together of Subjective and Objective, while maintaining the difference in causal direction, as a step on the way toward his defense of a normative type theory is, I think, brilliant, and worth the price of admission.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Derek Parfit --- Objective Theories and unfree desires

Parfit provides an unilluminating distinction between subjective and objective theories:
On many subjective theories, the strength of the these reasons depends on the strength of these desires or on our preferences.  On objective theories, the strength of these reasons depends instead on how good, or worth achieving, the fulfilment of these desires would be. Many of us often have stronger desires for what would be less worth achieving."(pg. 95)
Is this guy my Sunday School teacher?

He then reiterates the tired formula that we do not choose what we desire etc....; this was known in the 19th century as the "law of motivation", at least is was for Schopenhauer.   He say "we can choose which desires to adopt as aims, and try to fulfil."  What makes him think this??

The book reads like he's writing right off the top of his head, which is not a good thing in this case.

"Our desires are rational, I have claimed, when we want events whose features give us reasons to want them.  Our desires are not rational, and are in the old phrase contrary to reason, when we want some event that we have reasons not to want..."(pg. 105)

Page after page of stuff I could get from my mennnonite friends -- and they are my good friends.

Derek Parfit -- Reasons weighed against Reasons

Parfit goes on at some length about how facts give us reasons.  He gives examples like being allergic to walnuts gives us a reason not to eat them.  He goes on to say that reasons counteract other reasons.  None of this is particularly interesting. 

He praises rationality as a way of determining how we ought to act.  He goes on at some tedious length about 'relevant' reasons providing 'sufficient' reasons for acting in certain ways, all the while begging the questions that plague the history of ethics -- at least, so far.  My advice is that if he's going to re-establish normative ethics on some sort of foundation that people can really sink their teeth into, he needs to get to it a tad sooner otherwise people will think he doesn't really have anything.

Here goes:
"When we call something good, in what we call the reason-implying sense, we mean roughly that there are certain kinds of fact about this thing's nature, or properties, that would in certain situations give us or others strong reasons to respond to this thing in some positive way, such as wanting, choosing, using, producing, or preserving this thing"(pg. 87)

Thanks. But what I want to know is what moral properties are and how they can impel moral action.  And for Parfit, or any neo-Kantian, we must have moral action as such.  There must be "moral" reasons, that rationally impel action.  The whole question of the existence of such things is begged.