Monday, 12 August 2013

4. Aristotle to Beckett: From Greek Theatre to Absurd Theatre

Academic Year 2013-14: 
Post 4: Meaning of Literature to Meaninglessness in Literature

During last two weeks (29 July to 10 August 2013), I passed through a Tiresian sort of  experience  - 'throbbing between two lives' - from Aristotle's concept of literature, his 'canonization' of literature, his giving meaning to literature, his optimism in deathly tales of tragedies, his Oedipus- the defiant against the Destiny; to Samuel Beckett's 'Nothing to be done', his meaninglessness in literature, his pessimism in nothingness of human condition, his Sisyphean happiness in human predicament of life where - "They give birth astride the grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more".

Samuel Beckett

In Semester 1, we ended our discussion on Aristotle's 'Poetics'. I 'pitied' students' predicament and concluded rather hurriedly, without giving more time for discussion and engaging them in brainstorming age old Aristotelian concepts. I will show them 'fear' in the handful of dust when it comes to discuss 'possible and necessary' questions. The presentations of important points discussed will be embedded soon on this post so that late admissions and absent (physical as well as mental) students can get themselves abreast.
In Semester 3, we are still debating meanings in meaninglessness. Yes, it is, indeed, a difficult task to switch over from Aristotle to Samuel Beckett. They both stand wide apart in the basic concept of literature. Aristotle attempts, and quite successfully, to defend and define first ever definition of Tragedy in particular, and literature in general. Beckett’s plays presented life as meaningless, and one that could simply end in casual slaughter[1].
Nevertheless, their difference and polarization of ideas seems to be locking horns at each other. But in fact, they deal with one and the same thing. Aristotle heavily relied on Sophocles’s ‘Oedipus the Rex’ to bring home his arguments. And William Hutchings helps to connect the dots. Let me quote at length from his book ‘Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: A Reference Guide’ (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005): “Since the beginning of Western drama in ancient Greece in the 5th century B.C., three plays have generated, captivated more diverse interpretations, raised more profound questions, captivated more audiences’ imaginations, and provoked more arguments than any others – or even, quite possibly, more than all others combined.” (I like the ‘shape of this sentence’. I borrow this from what Samuel Beckett once wrote: “I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe in them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine. . . “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters.”).  Let us continue with Hitchings: “The fist, Sophocles’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ (also known as ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’ or ‘Oedipus the King’, was written in the fifth century B.C. in ancient Athens; the second, William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, was first performed in London circa 1602; the third is Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, which had its premiere in a very small theatre in Paris in 1953. Each of these plays has a seemingly endless ability to fascinate – and to perplex – its audiences, in part because its plot raises questions for which there can be no easy answers or final resolutions: Did Oedipus have free will in taking the actions that he did, even when he unknowingly killed his father? Or was his fate entirely determined or predestined by the Gods? Is Prince Hamlet mad, or is he not? Is the Ghost that he sees real, or is it NOT? If real, is it telling the truth, or is it not? And, most strangely of all, why are these two trams on this desolate landscape waiting beside a tree for Mr. Godot whom they might not recognize and who does not – and may not – arrive? Why isn’t much ‘happening’ here? What’s it meant to mean?”.
He further writes: “One reason for the three plays’ continuing appeal is that each challenges its audiences and its readers to think about profound questions about the naute of the world in which we live; about the meaning of life itself; and , especially, aobut how we know what we think we know about the universe, about other people, and even about ourselves. Each in its own way embodies issues that have vexed philosophers and theologians for years. ‘Oedipus Rex’ asks us to consider whether gods or humans are fundamentally in control of the world; whether we all have destinies that are inexorable, unavoidable, and preordained; and whether there are circumstances in which we can – or even should – try to defy the will of the gods and the edicts that they issue. ‘Hamlet’, similarly, questions the ‘kind’ of universe we live in – whether justice can be found in this world or the next (if at all), and whether we can ever know with certainty the truth of our situations and then act with moral responsibility when and if we think we do. ‘Waiting for Godot’, in many ways, simply extends those uncertainties: why are we here? Are we alone in an uncaring universe, or not? What are we to do while we are here? How can we know? And, ultimately, what does it matter?
However profound the questions that they raise and however disturbing the answers that they provoke, these plays are fundamentally ‘not’ philosophical treatises or sermons. The source of their perennial popular appeal lies, emphatically, elsewhere: despite quite dissimilar styles, they share uniquely theatrical eloquences, a poetry that is embodied in performance, conveyed not only through language but through the predicament which Oedipus, Hamlet and two Tramps suffers”.(Italic words are mine.)

(More to follow . . .)

Questions from students: 
However, there were many questions raised and settled in the class, some dusted off, the two with which I came home are: 
1) If patriarchy 'conditions' languages, why is it called ‘mother language’ and 
2) If ‘Waiting for Godot’ deals with meaninglessness, why do we say that the meaning of the play in meaninglessness and nothingness and . .  so and so on?

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