I’ve been fortunate never to have experienced the crippling effects of chronic depression, although I’ve had my share of despair where the world seemed to spin out of control and even sleep, if it could be had, offered no respite. Like so many others, I have known late nights sprawled on a couch, clicking the hours away, remote in hand, finding nothing worth watching, relying on endless checking of meaningless Facebook updates to authenticate the feeling that I’m not alone in this spiraling vortex. Are we that obsessed with distracting ourselves? And if so, from what, I wonder? Being alone? Not alone by ourselves, though that too, but alone with our thoughts. Do we fill our days with sidetracking paraphernalia to avoid the agony of introspection which would inevitably lead to the central question of our lives—our mortality? The consuming question is this: are our lives being driven by the specter of death? Is that behind our attempts to fill every moment with something, anything, just to avoid confronting the only truth of which we are certain? Are we trying to divert ourselves from ourselves? What fears lurk beneath the urgency to keep busy, rushing through manufactured tasks and mundane events, going to church, jamming trivia into our days as though they were somehow meaningful, bestowing significance on them by virtue of our attention, deluding ourselves by clinging to an impuissant work ethic, a hand-me-down from past generations that prized it above all else? We save very little time for vacations, have the least number of public holidays of any country, and when we do take a break we’re lucky if we find time to enjoy a sunset!
When I first read Samuel Beckett’s anguished cry (the title of this essay) from his seminal work, Waiting for Godot, the full implications of it didn’t really strike me, although it vaguely echoed Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” Since then my fascination with the so-called Theatre of the Absurd has offered insights into the world as I traveled across the globe, making more sense of what I saw than I cared to admit. Looking through literature I found those sentiments reflected in other works—the sacrifices of “scapegoated” heroic figures from Shakespearean and Greek tragedies seek transcendence from the desolation of the human condition; comedic structures attempt to reorder societies by changing the rhythms of the old world to fit the melodies of youth, exchanging a past for a new future that will in time become replete with similar characteristics that made the past so unpalatable! The tortuous cycle continues.
These depictions offer only glimpses of hope as they strain against overwhelming realities. King Lear ends in a world as hopeless and barren as can be imagined, prompting Beckett to use the king and his fool metaphorically in Endgame, that entropic image of a world we have destroyed. For all his eternal optimism, Dickens’ brilliance lies in his excoriating portrayals of industrial London where little orphans were swallowed by rapacious thugs lurking in alleys and the trammels of England’s Courts of Chancery ensnared families for decades! Any journey through his pages cannot ignore the glowering pessimism of the nineteenth century and the crushing weight of factories and machines leading to disenchantment and inertia—Chekhov’s characters are unable to rise from their indolence and go to Moscow, preferring to yearn for what will never come, for longing is their raison d’etre, replacing vibrancy with torpor, banishing the cherry orchard to the lumber yard as commercialism and utility sweep away beauty and grace, false notions anyway, having been acquired on the backs of serfs and the underclass!
The machines have changed, but the effects persist—digital technology, once hailed with the same enthusiasm as the industrial machinery of the nineteenth century, is viewed with growing suspicion as intrusive, leading to questions of privacy and loss of identity, reducing us to disembodied voices on answering machines or twitter feeds. The ability to stay in contact with a swath of people robs us of the desire to do so; if it’s always available it loses its urgency, without which we drift into isolation, cocooned by the minutiae of every day, paralyzed by the burden of trying to authenticate our existence.
We don’t purchase products any more—they buy us!! Walking through shopping aisles we are attacked by displays that scream for attention; row upon shiny row leer as we walk past, similar to walking through a jail cell corridor showered by abuse from inmates on either side. Under relentless pressure we succumb, reach out and grab one; maybe we even read the specifications on the container to delude ourselves into believing we made a wise choice. But the selection is quite random, for the plethora of available products deadens our ability to choose. With our identities eviscerated by years of slavery to the gods of marketing strategies, we don’t know who we are, much less what we really want. We are now on sale, possessed by our possessions—clothes, household products, food, holiday resorts, TV channels, movies, books, and everything else; we have to take what we are given. They choose us!
There’s a moment in Ionesco’s Bald Soprano where the Smiths are discussing Bobby Watson’s death, reported in the newspaper; as the conversation proceeds we realize every single one of Bobby Watson’s relatives is named Bobby Watson. Of course, the amusing irony is that a couple named Smith is making this discovery. Keeping up with the Joneses (or Smiths) has turned us into Joneses, with the same houses, same clothes, and the same status updates. Look through the myriad photographs on Facebook and after a while the pictures of kids, families, and vacations devolve into endless cycles of sameness. We are all Bobby Watsons, interchangeable and alike, indistinguishable from one another, with nothing meaningful to say. Our political and social parties and FB profiles are vain attempts to distinguish us but very little there is unique.
Towards the end of The Bald Soprano dialogue descends into gibberish, culminating in a show of aggression. Failure to communicate leaves violence as the only option, for we desperately need something to remind us that we’re alive, that we still live in a social world, but all we have are anger, violence, and the instinct to survive—witness global skirmishes and full-fledged wars, ethnic cleansing, government sponsored torture, terrorism, street violence, political discourse and TV discussions that are shouting matches, mass murders in villages, movie theatres, and even temples! The jungle paths to destruction have always been available, obscured sometimes by the underbrush of forced civility, but easily accessible when survival is at stake.
This is the Age of Saturn, a sullen, scowling time where malevolence permeates the republic and millions of bloggers can pen their unfiltered thoughts; where politicians lie with impunity and truth is lost among thousands of commercials; where we cling to worthless promises because we’re desperate to believe someone cares about us; a time of distrust, skepticism, and fear! Music now finds its greatest audience only through competitions and the hushed loveliness of verse has descended into poetry slams. A hundred years ago Expressionists rebelled against the dehumanizing effects of an industrial age, distorting reality to give vent to passions and feelings, releasing their creative streams unencumbered by constraints of logic or order; they themselves were victims of an emotional angst that settled upon Europe before exploding in a massive conflagration across the continent. It almost seems like we have come full circle ten decades later. In the new reality of this century, language and relationships have been compressed and distorted—140 characters (as random as the work of Dadaists) are enough to say what we feel and the social networks of cyberspace have supplanted front porches, parish halls, and even playgrounds. We can now count the number of “friends” we have right there in the left column and on the right we know exactly what we “like.” And still we are alone. Waiting…
Earlier I alluded to the fear of death being the driving force behind much of what we do, suggesting that much of what we do are merely distractions designed to keep us from contemplating the void. Perhaps the most successful thing is to make it through each day. When one considers the absolute haphazardness of life (people dying accidentally or being stricken with fatal diseases—who among us doesn’t know someone we love in this situation?) it’s a small miracle we are alive at any moment! Despite the winding down of the world in Endgame they are left with the possibility of tomorrow; Godot never comes but Everyman still waits on the empty road; we persist. The original French title of the play is En Attendant Godot, WHILE waiting for Godot! Like Beckett’s tramps we find ways to amuse ourselves while waiting for the end—we play games, make art, have sex, get drunk, persevere in our jobs, convince ourselves that death is not tomorrow, and do a million things that slap our faces to wake us to the fact that we’re alive.
Dr. Kim Pereira is Professor of Theater and Director of the Honors Program at Illinois State University.