Light In A Dark Place

Last February Loyd Rosenfield, a feature columnist for the Mexico City News, wrote a column about a Sunday-night church service in which he heard Francine Morrison perform. Rosenfield found that her joyous gospel singing and the audience’s participation served as very good medicine “to restore” his “soul.”

Whatever Rosenfield meant by his use of this biblical expression, the reason why he felt the need of soul restoration is interesting. He had recently attended a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. In his words, “After seeing Beckett’s Endgame … go on for three hours about the futility of life, there’s nothing to restore your soul like a good gospel singer.”

Perhaps no modern writer dredges the depths of twentieth-century existentialist despair as profoundly and skillfully as Samuel Beckett, an English novelist and playwright who has chosen to write in French. His best-known works are probably the novels Murphy and Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable (a trilogy); and the plays Waiting For Godot and Endgame.

For the Christian the significant thing about Beckett is that he depicts with startling accuracy the spiritual condition of man apart from (for Beckett, without) God. Nearly all existentialist writers agree that the generally accepted metaphysical meanings of past ages (absolute standards of morality, beauty, and truth) have become invalid and that man is left without a meaning for living, without a metaphysical reason for being, unless he himself creates this meaning. But few if any of them insist as Beckett does that only a God (or whatever this God would be in human experience) would be able to provide this meaning.

Beckett seems to suggest that there is a God-void that can be filled only by God. Such substitutes as humanism, friendship, sexual love, and social purpose which man has devised to replace the God once thought to be present, now believed to be absent or dead, are inadequate; they are only illusory fantasies of men who will not face the reality of life minus God. Beckett assumes he is living in an age and in a world in which God is absent. But this absent (or, more precisely, non-existent) God is not only man’s greatest need; he is the existential foundation of all man’s need. Michael Robinson, in his penetrating analysis of Beckett’s work, points out that Beckett insists that if this “presence” which should be at the “core” of the universe is not there (and it is not), human experience is meaningless, because for Beckett “all that is not God is nothing” (The Long Sonata of the Dead: A Study of Samuel Beckett, p. 29).

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But Beckett is in no sense a Christian writer. Although his works are almost totally concerned with the basic human condition and are filled with biblical allusions, Beckett is anything but a Christian. Under no circumstances should his works be read, as some misguided critics have done, as an affirmation or a new interpretation of Christian belief. His writings subject Christian concepts to a scorn that surpasses satire and irony in the “power of the text to claw” (Beckett’s own phrase). In fact, one meaning communicated quite clearly in nearly all his work is that man’s clinging to the Judaeo-Christian ideology is the most absurd (most pitiable and comical) of all human fantasies.

Since Beckett’s disbelief is absolute, there is an element of surprise and strangeness in his preoccupation with the idea of God. This idea so permeates his writing that it is almost impossible not to suspect that Beckett is not so much insisting that there is no God as insisting that there is some something or someone responsible for the absurd misery of life. Against this force man can do nothing except helplessly and despairingly shake his fist.

The animosity Beckett describes is so intense and personal that it seems incomprehensible without a target. As Catherine Hughes has pointed out, Beckett sees man as existing “in a kind of hell, one in which the inhabitants have been arbitrarily condemned for some unknown transgression” (“Beckett and the Game of Life,” The Catholic World, June, 1962, p. 166). Thus Estragon and Vladimir (in Waiting For Godot) must wait forever for Godot (God?), who, though he is probably non-existent, has led them to believe that he will come and save them. In Endgame Hamm is the “son” of a non-existent Father-God who is slowly starving and tormenting him but who does not wish him to gain the release of death.

The hero of the novel The Unnamable (who, of course, has no name) feels his life is such a punishment that he must be guilty of some horrible offense, committed unawares, against someone. He cries, “What have I done to them, what have I done to God” (Three Novels, Grove, 1965, p. 386; further references to the novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable are from this edition). But the perverse malignity of this God, more horrible than that of any pagan deity, degenerates into meaningless absurdity because there is no such God. The Unnamable continues with complete reasonableness:

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What has God done to us, nothing, and we’ve done nothing to him, you can’t do anything to him, he can’t do anything to us, we’re innocent, he’s innocent, it’s nobody’s fault [Three Novels, p. 386].

But of even greater significance to the Christian than this paradox of Beckett’s anger directed against a God who he claims does not exist is his astonishingly accurate and detailed portrayal of man’s “lostness.” This is not to say that Beckett sees man as sinful, fallen, and in need of redemption. The exact opposite is true. Along with most modern-day writers, Beckett conceives of man as amoral, and assumes that the cruel farce of life is simply a happenstance. It is not in his logic as to how man arrived at his present condition, but in his poetically beautiful and skillfully crafted verbalization of that condition, that he astonishes the Christian with his perception of man’s lostness. While Beckett would intend his description to encompass all men, the Christian would perceive it as encompassing all men without Christ. The very needs that this secular writer describes—the problems of human experience—are precisely those that the Christian sees as being met for man only through his reconciliation with God through Christ. In other words, Beckett’s darkness is the same darkness described in the Bible, that of man separated from the life of God. But for Beckett, there is no Christ to flood light into the darkness.

The Christian dare not ignore a writer who creates such characters (who are all actually the same character) who say such things (always actually the same thing) as Malone in Malone Dies:

But what matter whether I was born or not, have lived or not, am dead or merely dying, I shall go on doing as I have always done, not knowing what it is I do, nor who I am, nor where I am, nor if I am … not knowing what my prayer should be nor to whom [Three Novels, p. 226].

Surely he will feel a profound sympathy, or rather, a profound empathy (was not this lostness his own condition before God found him?), for Beckett and all such artists who have backed themselves into this darkest of all corners.

One aspect of Beckett’s darkness is his concept of time. If all of life from birth to death is only a passing from nothing through nothing to nothing, then each moment of life equals every other moment in total insignificance. Thus every moment is the same, time is essentially static, and any statement made about the past, the present, or the future is without content. Pozzo, in Waiting For Godot, is enraged at being asked to remember what happened on a certain day and insists that all time is the same empty day.

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One day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second.… They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more [Waiting For Godot, Grove, 1954, p. 57b; further references to the play are from this edition].

But the Christian is not limited in his knowledge to the visible witness of nature to a continuing cycle of nights and days, each repeating the other in seemingly endless similarity. By divine revelation he knows that beyond all time there is a timeless God who created time, and that in time there is Christ, who is the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8). Furthermore, this God began history (Gen. 1:1), entered time to redeem man at a precise moment in this history (Gal. 4:4), and is now directing all days toward that certain and unique day of the “glorious appearing of … Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

God’s use of time gives significance and direction to the Christian’s use. He is to reckon each day as part of a stewardship for which he is eternally responsible (Rom. 14:12). Therefore each day must be redeemed (Eph. 5:16) as a unique opportunity to join with God in accomplishing his purposes in history. Such a viewpoint gives value, not only to each day, but to each moment of life.

Beckett’s characters long for time to end so that they can return to the condition of pre-conscious non-existence from which they came. Only in this condition do they think they can achieve the oblivion that they so earnestly desire. Vladimir and Estragon (Waiting For Godot) plan hopefully to hang themselves and thus to escape the inevitable fact that day always follows night, and Hamm (Endgame) is eager for the play of which he is the hero and everything in it to wind down and end. Their greatest fear, and perhaps the hindrance to self-destruction, is that death does not result in non-being. When Malone is dying he is horrified to imagine that he is “dead already and that all continues more or less as when I was not” (Three Novels, p. 219).

While the Christian knows that his self-consciousness is a result of his being a living soul (Gen. 2:7) created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), and that he can never die, he considers this consciousness not as a burden but as a gift signifying God-likeness and as a necessary prerequisite for obtaining eternal life. Although the earth will be redeemed (Rom. 8:21), individual animals and plants (all life lacking self-consciousness) return to the earth in a continuing insensible state. But man, the crown of God’s earthly creation, is given the awesome responsibility and potentially joyful privilege of consciously existing forever. While apart from Christ such continued existence is a hell even worse than any Beckett could describe, in Christ it consists of a “glory which shall be revealed” that even Paul was at a loss to find words to describe (Rom. 8:18).

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Related to his longing for non-being is the Beckett hero’s desire to return to his mother’s womb or to the closed interior of his own mind as the only places that he can call home, the only places where he has any sense of belonging. In Molloy, both heroes, Molloy and Moran, exhibit this desire. Molloy’s efforts to return to his mother have led him as far as her bedroom, and Moran’s “journey home” through “furies and treacheries” is toward the same goal. Life, then, is only a painful and meaningless exile in which the hero can find no place of abode. True, in Endgame Hamm has a house that is a refuge of sorts from the death outside, but it is probably only the inside of his own skull, and is itself a place of death. Similarly, in The Unnamable the only place the Unnamable is certain was made for him and he for it is the interior of his own mind. But this interior is a place of horror, not of refuge, for here he realizes there is no release from the crushing burden of self-consciousness from which he longs to escape.

Augustine knew that God made man for himself and that man cannot find rest or refuge outside God. David states that Jehovah God is a “refuge” (Ps. 62:8) and a “strong habitation” into which man may “continually resort” (Ps. 71:3). Jesus promised his disciples a present “abode” (John 14:23) because he and the Father would come to dwell with them, and a future house with many rooms prepared especially for them (John 14:2). Truly, man can be homeless, an orphan and an exile in the earth, but only because he will not come home to his Father’s house.

A major factor in the desire to return to the oblivion of the womb is a hatred of life. Nearly all of Beckett’s characters consider life to be not just an unwelcome gift but a curse forced upon them by their parents. Molloy has difficulty forgiving his mother for not getting him “unstuck” early in his conception. He calls her Mag because “the letter g abolished the syllable Ma, and as it were spat on it, better than any other letter would have done” (Three Novels, p. 17). Hamm is obsessed with the thought that if his father, Nagg, had not fathered him he would not have had to live, and he curses him (“accursed progenitor,” “accursed fornicator”).

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The writer of Ecclesiastes, in considering human experience apart from God, also “hated life” because he realized that it “is vanity and vexation of spirit” (Eccl. 2:17). But Job, though in the extremity of his distress he cursed the day of his conception (Job 3:3), refused to heed his wife’s instruction to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Eventually he came to understand that in his great trouble he had “uttered” what he “understood not” (Job 42:3). For the Christian the occasion of birth is the beginning of an existence which may contain much sorrow, but in which it is possible to know God and to discover his purpose for life. Therefore he esteems human life to be of infinite worth because this life can be “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).

In a very perceptive essay Hugh Kenner explores Beckett’s concept of an irreconcilable split between the human mind and body (“The Cartesian Centaur,” Perspective, Autumn, 1959). The body is more of a prison than a useful instrument for the mind; a bicycle is a far more suitable instrument than the body. Some of Beckett’s pairs of characters (Lucky and Pozzo in Waiting For Godot and Hamm and Clov in Endgame) may be viewed as minds and bodies split but forced to remain together by a mixture of selfish love and loathing. The title character in Murphy sees his mind and body as separate entities that have hardly “anything in common.”

This concept is akin to the Greek idea of the inherent evil of the body and the goodness of the soul or spirit. But Hebrew and Christian thought does not view the body or flesh as inherently evil. Paul instructed the Ephesians to love their wives as they loved “their own bodies,” and claimed that man does not hate “his own flesh” but nourishes and cherishes it (Eph. 5:28, 29). Job was certain that although worms might destroy his body, yet in his flesh he would see God (Job 19:26) because the body, not just the spirit, will ultimately be redeemed (1 Cor. 15:35–44). Finally, further honor is accorded the body in that the Church is referred to as the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22–23) and that in the incarnation Christ himself became “flesh and blood” (Heb. 2:14). The Christian sees no division between his body, soul, and spirit but rather a unity and harmony patterned after the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), in whose image he has been created. Thus his body is the instrument that, yielded by his spirit to the Holy Spirit, can best serve and glorify God.

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Beckett conceives of nature (as the environment of man) as a paradox in that it is a dual setting of violent contrast. The tree in Waiting For Godot is “all black and bare” in the first act but grotesquely and impossibly “covered with leaves” in the second. This tree is not a normal renewal of life in spring after winter, but a symbol of the double face of nature—a green, budded, black, bare tree that is life (“Everything’s dead but the tree” [p. 59b]) and yet death (the tree is Vladimir and Estragon’s only chance at death, suicide by hanging). Nature, then, which appears to be a thing of life and beauty, is actually a thing of metaphysical emptiness and death. Holding such a concept, Beckett agrees with naturalistic writers in viewing nature as being so indifferent to man as to be pitted against him.

The Christian is no pantheist, or even a romantic, in his understanding of nature. Although he knows that God’s original creation was good and perfectly suited for man (Gen. 1:29, 31), he realizes that Adam’s sin and his own sin (the present pollution) have wrought havoc with nature. However, he also knows that nature even now is controlled and sustained by God (Col. 1:17; Ps. 119:90, 91) and will eventually be redeemed (Rom. 8:21). Furthermore, he sees the order and beauty of nature as the handiwork of God (Ps. 19:1) and the renewal of life through the seasons as bespeaking rebirth (Ps. 104:30), even to the point of the future creation of a “new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13).

A problem common to much literature similar to Beckett’s is a search for lost identity—a longing to say “I” with full understanding and content. But as Ethel Cornwell has pointed out, “The Beckett hero does not seek his identity, he flees from it: his quest is for anonymity, for self-annihilation” (“Samuel Beckett: The Flight From Self,” PMLA, Jan., 1973). The Unnamable finally decides never to use the first person again because in so doing he is forced to admit that he is a person who exists. The characters in Waiting For Godot are never certain from one moment to the next of their identities. Vladimir may be Vladimir but he might be Mister Albert, and Pozzo answers to almost any name he is called. To assume an identity is to assume a responsibility for selfhood that the Beckett hero is not able to endure.

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The Christian derives his identity from God. God has created him (Gen. 2:7) and adopted him by redemption into His family (Eph. 1:5, 7). Because of these relationships the Christian is certain of his identity as a son of God. This established identity determines his relation with others. Because he has been reconciled, he has been given the “ministry of reconciliation” and is an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:18–20). And so the Christian knows where he came from, who he is, and why he is here in regard to others. Every existentially defined need regarding identity can be met in Christ.

Most of Beckett’s characters are related to each other only in a hated dependency, though some are joined in a common sharing of despair. Clov cannot leave Hamm because only Hamm has any food left, and Hamm cannot evict Clov because Hamm is blind and crippled and has no one else to care for him. Vladimir and Estragon do not actually want to stay together, but because they are both shut up to a futile waiting for Godot to come, and because each has no one else with whom to play nonsense games, they remain together. But because undesired dependency usually breeds not love but a disgusting hatred, self-giving love between persons is almost wholly absent from Beckett’s writing. Another obstacle to such love is the self-loathing a character often feels for himself. Because he has no God to love (or who loves him) and because he loathes himself, he cannot love another person.

This need can be filled with all sufficiency by the God who is love (1 John 4:8). Because this God has loved each person and has esteemed him of such worth that he gave his Son (who also loved to the point of death) to die in his stead (John 3:16), the Christian has all the resources necessary to relate to others in self-giving love. Therefore the Christian sees himself and all other men as persons for whom Christ died (Rom. 5:8), and he is joined with all other Christians, not in despair, but in hope (Rom. 8:25). Furthermore, he is the recipient of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who causes the “love of God” to be “shed abroad” in his heart (Rom. 5:5). The reason why a Beckett character cannot love another person is that he “knoweth not God; for God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Endgame is a grotesque travesty of the Christian concept of a God who is related to man as a father. Hamm (the hero of the play) feels compelled to relate a story of a man who comes crawling to him begging bread for his starving son. Although a catastrophe has rendered the earth incapable of producing food and Hamm has all the remaining stores of food in his locked cupboard, he will not give the man bread. Therefore the man has no bread to give to his son. Beckett’s implication is that man has no responsibility or ability to give to others because there is no heavenly Father who has ever given to him.

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During this entire play Hamm is obviously being crucified by this cruel and non-existent Father-God. He is in a room resembling a skull, which may symbolize Golgotha, and his face is covered with a bloody handkerchief suggesting a handkerchief from early tradition said to have been marked with Christ’s features. He finally calls “Father! Father!” to a God who is not there, and the play ends with the blackest of metaphysical darkness.

This play is like a nightmare from which it is possible to awaken by reading the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. Here Jesus explains that he is the “bread of God” who has come down from heaven to give “life unto the world,” and that whoever comes to him will never hunger. There is a Father-God, who in giving Christ has given spiritual bread and thus has provided for the metaphysical needs of man. Man, therefore. can give to others, not stones, but bread, because the heavenly Father has given so “much more” (Luke 11:11–13).

Vladimir and Estragon, two amusing but profoundly human tramps, wait for some person supposedly named Godot. They are most uncertain about this meeting—where and when it is to take place (they thought it was to be some Saturday, maybe by the tree), what Godot will do when he comes (he will either save or damn them; they are uncertain which), and even whether or not he exists (is he Godot or Godet or Godin and has anyone ever really seen him?). Despite this uncertainty, they must wait because there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. Also, the clowns long above all else (“in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear”) for Godot to come so that they might possibly “be saved.” When they imagine that he is coming, Vladimir shouts, “It’s Godot! At last! Gogo! It’s Godot! We’re saved! Let’s go and meet him” (p. 47b). But it is not Godot; he will never come because he probably does not even exist.

Beckett is saying that man must wait (he has no alternative except death) for a God (or for whatever this God would be) who cannot communicate with or save man because he does not exist. Thus man is shut up to a continual waiting or an event of paramount metaphysical significance that can never occur.

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But the Christian knows that this event has occurred. God has come (from heaven to Bethlehem), and there is no uncertainty as to his name: it is Jesus Christ. Nor is there uncertainty as to his purpose: it is to save, to bring out of the place of death into the land of the living.

The validity of any Christian answer to Beckett’s metaphysical lostness is closely related to the story (already mentioned) that Hamm tells in Endgame. A close examination of this story reveals that it is a skillfully jumbled and blasphemous parody of the biblical narrative in a nutshell. Hamm’s story occurs on Christmas Eve, and Hamm designates the appearance of the man as an “invasion” from another place. The man asks for bread and is ridiculed by Hamm for thinking that there might possibly still be “manna in heaven.” Also, the man has left his son “deep in sleep” for “three whole days.” Later, when Clov asks Hamm to go ahead with his story, Hamm agrees but goes backward in biblical history to mention details from the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. The man (but also “another”) comes “crawling on his belly” and the man is “offered a job as gardener.” These allusions are intentionally only a confused jumble of words (Beckett’s “word” concerning the trustworthiness of the biblical record. For him, nonsense is the sum total of all metaphysical meaning that may be derived from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

The answers that the Christian can offer all writers such as Beckett are abundantly sufficient, but their validity can be assumed only if these Scriptures are a “sure word of prophecy”—that is, if they came, not “by the will of man” but by the moving of “the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:19–21). Only then is there help for Hamm, who cries in darkness because his light is dying, and for the Unnamable, who in order to nullify the darkness within himself longs to be shut up in the “black dark.” Apart from this “sure word” there is no “light that shineth in a dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19). For it is this written word that tells of the living Word, who is the light of life.

Laura Barge is an M.A. candidate in English at Mississippi State University.

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