Every mind has struggled with Existentialism. Its founders toiled to define it, philosophers strained to grasp it, teachers have a difficult time explaining it. Where do these Existentialists get the right to tell me that my one and only world is meaningless? How can a student believe that someone was sitting in jail and figured out that our existence precedes our essence? Existentialism places man in the center of his own universe; free to make his own choices and decide his purpose. Many of us are not ready for this.
Fortunately, the world has come to trust its authors. You can’t just sit down and explain the Existentialist belief to a person – it must be put into the context of the human situation. Through stories and situations the ideas are defined – Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and theater of the absurd plays like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Eugene Ionesco’s Amedee – they spin you around on your chair so you are facing the real world, and then shove you right into the middle of it.
Existentialism especially turns our attention toward the meaningless, repetitive and dull existences we all must lead. Two works, The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus and Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett have exemplified these existential points in contrasting perspectives. In the essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus takes a look at the story of Sisyphus, a man that scorns the Gods, challenges their power, and causes a lot of trouble in his life and afterlife.As his punishment, “His whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.”He pushes and strains his entire body to move a boulder up a mountain slope, and when he reaches the top, it rolls back to the very bottom. Sisyphus must repeat this task for eternity. This is a lonely and painful experience. At first, Sisyphus must feel such agony and regret, but Camus believes that Sisyphus is happy. Maybe the first, second, or hundredth time that he returned to his rock, he realized: though his fate ties him to this ceaseless and futile labour, he is the owner of that fate. Once we are conscious of the useless and absurd things we do daily, we can accept them as our duty, and revel in joy that we accomplish even the most meaningless goals.Sisyphus walks down the slope ready to try again, and ready to fail, because it is his purpose.
Camus has added a little bit of hope to the lives we so often regret. Perhaps Camus believed that Sisyphus tries again because someday he can push the rock to the very top, and it will stay. Through the play Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett leaves little room for hope. Two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for a man called Godot. Every day they wait, in the same spot, living out their lives believing that Godot will come. They are unsure, unsatisfied, and unhappy because they wait. They are restricted in their actions and decisions because they wait. This exchange occurs at least five times in the only two acts of the play:
“We’re waiting for Godot”
Vladimir – tall and abstract, and Estragon – stout, earthly and concrete, represent two halves of the same person. They are dependent on each other and both are dependent on their desire to meet Godot. The roles, time, and states of consciousness change, but for no purpose, because everything strangely remains the same. As they wait, they play repetitive games, asked unanswered questions, and speak much, but seldom act. Sound familiar? Vladimir and Estragon’s situation is our own. Through the characters’ repeating actions and words and the play’s obvious absurdity, Beckett has shown us how absurd and redundant our lives truly are. While waiting for something that doesn’t exist, we run around in circles, make the same mistakes, and lose faith – yet retain a great deal of denial about it all. Each day, Godot fails to appear. Vladimir and Estragon return again, in hope that he might come tomorrow. Like our own Gods, Godot never appears. We continue to linger in hopes of being saved.
There is a cornucopia of existential connections in Waiting For Godot. and The Myth of Sisyphus.Vladimir and Estragon suggest they hang themselves from the tree – A tree that is always there, always in view. This tree is Death, an option available at all times for them. Vladimir and Estragon always had the choice to live or die, as Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre believed is the fundamental choice for all of us. To the Existentialists, the choice of life is the cause of much mental anguish – Sisyphus knows that every time he manages to get that rock near the top, it will once again fall – he has made a choice in his life and must suffer in his death. Vladimir realizes that he must return to the same place tomorrow and wait for Godot to arrive.Perhaps deep inside, Vladimir knows that his waiting is futile, but what else could he do? At least Estragon was lucky enough to not remember the days before.
In Waiting For Godot, does Vladimir have the same enlightenment as Sisyphus? Their situations are very different. Sisyphus has been condemned by the Gods to push his rock; this inescapable punishment represents the things in our lives that we cannot change. Vladimir and Estragon are seemingly waiting for Godot by choice. Their circumstance could represent our blindness of the things in which we actually do have control. If it was his destiny to wait, Vladimir could have been happy by accepting his destiny as Sisyphus had accepted his. If Vladimir were free, he could have pushed his rock to the top, let it drop, and moved on.
This brings another question: Could Sisyphus have moved on also? It seems that if he could make the choice to return to his rock, he could also make the choice to leave it behind.We are not sure of Sisyphus’s consequences, but in our lives there are many things to consider when making choices; our families, our loved ones, and our futures. If we choose to run from our destinies, we would only find ourselves exactly where fate wishes us. If Sisyphus had pushed his rock to the top and it remained still, on the walk down the slope to freedom, the rock would roll behind him and squash him flat.
Between Waiting For Godot and The Myth of Sisyphus, we learn a little bit about the redundancy of our lives; “Habit is a great deadener.” Vladimir states near the end of the play.It is a matter of how we perceive our misfortunes that determine a true victory. If we become slaves to our fates, then the rock has won. If we mock the cruel hand of fate, it can never crush us, and we have an eternity to celebrate the triumph.