Teaching Philosophy: Waiting for Godot and Simone Weil to Come to Class  

 

            This paper will articulate a teaching philosophy from an intertextual study of  Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Simone Weil’s Waiting for God. Their position on “waiting” is an ideal for teachers and students. A reading of Godot through Simone Weil, will clarify the definition of “waiting” as “attention” that takes us students from a position of “tasks to be performed” to “lessons to be interpreted.” After a brief survey of Beckett’s play, I will discuss Simone Weil’s tactics of “waiting” and apply them to Waiting for Godot, and conclude with some advice from Beckett and Weil for “waiting” in the classroom.

 

                                    Waiting for Godot

 

            Samuel Beckett, an Irish writer who used French to explore the absurdities of modern life, is most known for Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot), a 1953 theater of the absurd play about two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, who seem to be imprisoned in a deserted one sparse tree spot. They are waiting for a mysterious Mr. Godot who will come and rescue them from their miserable condition. In the first act, Estragon  struggles with his tight shoes and sore infested feet while Vladimir plays with the inside of his hat. They talk about the two thieves crucified with Christ, contemplate suicide, share their remaining food supplies of one carrot and some turnips, and are interrupted by Pozzo and Lucky a master/slave duo who perform skits for them with Pozzo acting and Lucky “thinking.” Upon their departure, a boy comes announcing that Godot will not come that day, but will come the next day. The second act is much the same. The tree has sprouted a few leaves. Vladimir and Estragon talk about friendship, about what they are doing and if they are happy. They “play” at contradicting each other, mime out the routine of the shoes and the hat, and share their food—this time some rotten radishes. Estragon’s foot wound has gotten worse. Pozzo and Lucky interrupt them again, but they are blind and mute respectively. The boy arrives and announces that Godot has put off his arrival until the next day. Many interpretations have followed. “Minimalization” theories have Beckett reducing all reality to a bare minimum to see if there is anything at the core of our humanness. Plot-wise, the biggest minimalization is “waiting” rather than “searching.”  Is the play positive or negative?

 

                        Simone Weil’s Waiting: Implicit love and Impersonality

 

            Simone Weil, a twentieth century philosopher and political activist, has a collection of essays and letters called Waiting for God (L’attente de dieu -- literally the “wait” for God).  Weil’s use of “attention” gives us insight into a possible Beckett meaning. She uses “attention” from its root meaning of “wait.” In the working out of a problem, the goal is not the answer, but an increased sense of attention. “Waiting” is the effort of attention to seek the truth. The goal is never the end. Attention is really a “thoughtful wait” where we try to empty ourselves of “goals” so as to let truth come in. Genuine efforts of attention are never wasted, even in apparent failure. In mathematics she sees her current failures as avenues to grace showing her the necessary humility to be on her way to deeper truths (Fielder xvii). Or, in learning Latin, Weil deduces, that the Cure d’Ars met failure upon failure, but his attention to the language gave him insights into the souls of his parishioners when they sought him out as a confessor (WG 59). Every school exercise done in attention can become a “sacrament” [presence of God or higher reality] giving us the faith that deeper truths will be revealed (WG 65).Weil sees God as ultimate truth and love. Non believers too can her “Wait for God” as a symbol of the search for love and truth.

“Impersonal” and “implicit” have special meanings to Weil. “Impersonality” is a goal for the soul. It is a detachment of our egos in order to experience pure love – a love not based on any need. The “collective” and “individual” personalities are based on force and need. We are prisoners of the collective whether it is in professional groups or religious groups. To experience real pure truth and love we need to get beyond the community and personal egos.

The human being can only escape from the collective by raising himself above the personal and entering into the impersonal. The moment he does this, there is something in him, a small portion of his soul, upon which nothing of the collective can get hold. If he can root himself in the impersonal good so as to be able to draw energy from it, then he is in condition, whenever he feels the obligation to do so, to bring to bear, without any outside help, against any collectivity, a small but real force.  (Miles 57)

 

Pure love of God or of a higher goodness is first experienced in the here and now (ici-bas) “implicitly” (WG 83). Love is a direction to purity –not something done for a reward or good feeling. There are no ulterior motives. We must all search for this “purity” in our vocations. Beauty has this purity. This “implicit love” comes when we “wait” in 3 areas of beauty: the beauty of love of neighbor and friendship; the beauty of the order of the world; and the beauty of religious ceremonies.

 

Beauties:  Love of Neighbor and Friendship, of the World, of Religious Ceremonies

 

            In “love of neighbor” relations we must have an equilibrium between the compassion of the giver and the gratitude of the receiver. Pure giving is when the giver hears and is absorbed into the affliction of the receiver (WG 86-88). The two share, in balance, their affliction and gratitude. “Pure” means that there is no desire for rewards. In friendship we want to desire the good in each other, but avoid the friendship reaching a stage of necessity that would put one friend in a superior position. “Needing” lessens the purity of the friendship. In most relations we have a “master/slave” or superior/inferior union. Weil tells us that when a person feels like a slave he loses half his soul (87).  In the supernatural virtue of justice, the strong must have compassion for the weak and treat them as if they were absolutely equal. The weak have to recognize the generosity of this treatment in gratitude. Compassion and gratitude have to lose themselves in each other to reach a supernatural virtue of friendship (87-88). The goal is to achieve a position of purity where we lose our egos in compassion and gratitude.

            In loving the beauty of the world we wait for “God’s” tender smile coming through material creation. People in affliction cannot see beauty (104-110). Beauty has no ends. It is like “pure love.” Things with ends, like Harpagon’s gold (104), are disguises of beauty that will not satisfy in the long run. Beauty is in truth and in the direction of love. “Eating” is negative and involves consuming. An “eater” disregards the inedible portion of his food. In a relationship, an “eater” leaves a friend when the friend is no longer useful (Cameron 252). Objects of consumption are idols, whose long term goals are forgotten. . “Looking,” which is like listening and waiting, is the key (105-6). What we think are “ends,” like power and money are only means. Only beauty is not a “means.” It alone is good.  The poor are the closest to the beauty of the world, but they are too tired to see it in their afflicted positions (106). We should put off trying to possess beauty. We work at letting it shine through to us. In a poem we don’t wish it to be other than it is (112-113). Art imitates the order of the world, which has no finality. The things of this world that have necessity and finality are more negative (113). We must have “faith” that structures of beauty will be revealed to us. The ultimate desire is to see universal beauty. Seeing without the sense of wanting to consume or own is the degree of purity we try to advance to. It is like Weil’s desire for the “impersonal.” “Faith” will give us the patience in a “watchful wait.”

            With regard to the beauty and love of religious practices, Weil sees all religious ceremonies as pronouncements of the name of God in their own languages (117-120). In religious practices we develop a language of what we believe is truth and goodness.  There is a food value or nourishment in the ceremonies. Pure love is present when we do not try to consume or “reify” (make a thing out of) God or truth. Eating again is the “bad guy.” Language has a food value as our attention or “wait” is on developing a sense of truth where there is no desire for owning it. With the Eucharist, Weil explains that:

There is nothing in the morsel of bread that can be associated with our thought of God. Thus the conventional character of the divine presence is evident. Christ can be present in such an object only by convention. For this very reason he can be perfectly present in it.  God can only be present in secret here below. His presence in the Eucharist is truly secret since no part of our thought can reach the secret. Thus it is total.  (122).

 

We thus make a convention of the host as the lamb of god who takes away our afflictions. We “look at” and ponder the host. We do not really “eat” it. The host at the liturgy is the “pure” point of love that will take away our affliction. Conventions in our own vocations may work the same miracle—where we work at perfecting the language of our vocation in a community gathering (like at conventions—or classrooms – Proust’s tea and madeleine as sources of memory and real space and time).

 

                                    Beckett’s Waiting and the Three Beauties

 

            In Beckett’s play, the “waiting” is Simone Weil’s philosophic “attention.” The action is reduced, or minimalized, so that we can arrive at a purity. This purity has to do with the causes of the affliction (malheur) of the two tramps. The tramps, who are in the tradition of fools who know the truth, will, in turn, teach us,  the audience.

            In their struggle to find the “beauty of friendship and love of neighbor,” we see that Vladimir has trouble with keeping his hat on. He is more intellectual minded and needs Estragon for companionship and conversation. He fears being alone. Estragon is a little more physical minded as he struggles with his shoes and sore feet (Godot 14).  He depends on Vladimir for the carrot and turnips (28). Their friendship has not deteriorated into a master/slave relation as that of Pozzo and Lucky. Lucky is attached to Pozzo’s bags the way a laborer is attached to his machine (Miles 39-43). Pozzo says he is afraid of being fired! In the second act Pozzo may be blind and Lucky mute, and they may still have the master/slave relation, but we also see that they are somewhat attached to each other too. Vladimir and Estragon’s attachment is stronger and, at times, just seems to be based on nothing. Human love is limited to our needs of satisfying hunger, but they always go back to each other, even after they seemingly exhaust each other’s edibility (Cameron 252).Vladimir’s charity is evident as he gives Estragon the last carrot (28). As to “love of neighbor” we see that Vladimir and Estragon kick Pozzo and Lucky in the second act. When they can use force, they do so. They do not really feel compassion for Lucky and Pozzo when they are down.

            Concerning “beauty of the order of the world, Weil says the cause of affliction is not being able to make poetry out of your world order. Vladimir, at the start of Act 2, attempts to sing a song --  a story about a dog who has stolen some sausage and ends up himself being sliced by the chef . The other dogs bury the thief dog under a white cross. In the first act Vladimir talked about the two thieves crucified with Christ. Is this a poem about the two thieves? Weil says that the paradise promised the good thief has already happened in the act of being punished with Christ and not in the reward after. In affliction we can see the beauty of the world. Vladimir and Estragon are poets (Estragon said he was a poet, his dirty clothes being the sign) who recreate the order of their world. Rather than leaving their spot and searching, they stay and wait attentively. Stripped of desires of eating and searching, they recreate their world and discover real food – the prim ordial needs of their soul – friendship and conversation. Will it pay off? They plan to be ready the next day. They will even bring some rope—if Godot doesn’t show.

            As to the beauty of religious practices/ceremonies, Beckett, through the two tramps and the audience, creates a language of God. This “God” or “Godot” is not the god of “ends.” The religious ceremony here is theater. The play has a food value not based on consumption, but on seeing, listening and waiting. We wait for the actors and are relieved of the sin of wanting an end. Weil compares seeing the truth behind ordinary language like seeing the real affliction of tramps behind their dirty raggedy clothes (68). We have to lose ourselves in human wretchedness to see the truth of it. Clair Wolfteich sees the paradox of “Weil’s Eucharist” destroying itself of food value to become food for others (259). Here Beckett destroys the food value of “closure” in his play in order to deepen our “attention” to life.

           

                        Teaching a “Pensum” or Teaching a Lesson

 

            Mary Lydon, a Beckett scholar, sees his life/writing as the remnants of a “pensum” turned into a “lesson.” A “pensum” is an archaic word meaning a “chore,” a “task,” a “punishment” for students, like “lines to be memorized.” Life for Beckett is a chore of writing with nothing to express and the obligation to express it. His “pensum” becomes a “lesson” in its performance or art. “Lesson” has its root word in “lectio” or “reading.” Doing a “pensum” is a duty to perform. Reading is an act of interpretation, comprehension and love. With Weil, pensums can become lessons with the proper waiting attitude. Rote memory exercises can become poetic readings.

            I see my life as a teacher in this Simone Weil reading of Beckett’s “attention” in the areas of love of neighbor/friendship/, love of the beauty of the world, and participation in religious ceremonies. Reading is the act of interpreting, not only printed material, but material in all mediums and disciplines. Reading is also having knowledge of a particular language of a particular discipline. Teaching has to do with the word “know” and its various meanings: to know facts or to be acquainted with. How do I know how to read? How do I pass it on?

In beauty of love of neighbor and friendship, I am aware of the difficulty students are going through. My compassion stems from the difficulties I had in learning a foreign language and in the pains of expressing thoughts, along with the fear of so many beautiful thoughts dying because of my lack of articulation. I treat students as colleagues or “friends” in the sense that we form a learning community. They believe in my honesty of the pursuit of knowledge over any sentiment of me being a good Samaritan. In my case I am the tramp who struggles with reading and articulating ideas.

In loving the beauty of the world, I try to let them see the beauty in language learning and in reading literature. Elementary French is really a philosophy course on learning in general. Students who go through my course recreate their worlds in the new language. “Paying attention” is deeper in the French “faire attention.” “Doing the wait” is an active engagement in waiting on a problem or story to get the soul’s food out of it. We starve ourselves of consumer type food to let the waiting and seeing enter our being. Hopefully students will grasp a higher attention to their major discipline, and add mine on their “waiting” list.

 Loving the beauty of religious ceremonies for the teacher means the classroom.  “Religious” here means that the classroom is tied to a higher reality than just teaching course content. Our goal is a communion where a community of learners is formed who help each other out. The classroom experience keeps me in memory of the things I need to do to arrive at deeper levels of knowing. If I have a “pensum” to do, it is because I didn’t finish my lesson. Sometimes I think I am inventing, but I am really only doing a pensum. Lessons in humility keep me waiting on Beckett and Weil and another class to keep the vigil on looking for or looking at food.

 

                                    Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel, En attendant Godot. Paris: Editions de Minuit. 1952.

Cameron, Sharon. “The Practice of Attention: Simone Weil’s Performance of

Impersonality.” Critical Inquiry 29 (Winter 2003): 216-252.

Fielder,Leslie. “Introduction.” In Simone Weil, Waiting for God.

Lydon, Mary. “Beckett’s Life Work: Remnant of a Pensum.” MLA 1998.

Miles, Siân, ed. Simone Weil: an Anthology. New York: Grove Press, 1986.

Weil, Simone. Waiting for God. Trans. Emma Craufurd; with an introduction by Leslie

Fielder. New York: Perennial Classics, 2000.

________. L’attente de dieu. Paris: Fayard, 1966.

Wolfteich, Claire. “Attention and Destruction: Simone Weil and the Paradox of the

Eucharist.” Journal of Religion 81.3 (July 2001): 359-377.