Where power does not reign—nor initiative, nor the cutting edge of a decision—there, dying is living. There dying is the passivity of life—of life escaped from itself and confounded with the disaster of a time without present which we endure by waiting, by awaiting a misfortune which is not still to come, but which has always already come…. So it is that men who are destroyed…. are as though incapable of appearing, and invisible even when one sees them. And if they speak, it is with the voice of others, a voice always other than theirs which somehow accuses them, interrogates and obliges them to answer for a silent affliction which they bear without awareness.
—page 21 All quotations from The Writing of the Disaster by Maurice Blanchot. University of Nebraska Press, 1995
Waiting for Godot is a tissue of unanswered questions, and of them the question of Lucky is, perhaps, the most perturbing. As you will recall Estragon and Vladimir dally in a barren landscape, trying without much success to amuse each other while waiting for a man named Godot, apparently having no other prospects, repeating routines and phrases that have long lost the luster of the limelight. Enter a figure barely resembling a man, ancient, utterly beaten down, on the end of a long rope controlled by an imperious puppet-master named Pozzo. We learn that the pathetic creature on the end of the leash is named Lucky.
Lucky—name for a dog. In an essay on Kafka, Barthes wrote that, “A man treated like a dog is a dog.” That seems excessive. Something in us recoils from it, until we take a close look at The Metamorphosis. Samsa becomes a bug because he is treated like one, and he is treated like one because he acts like one. It’s the chicken or the egg. Whichever came first, if one is indeed treated like a repulsive insect, or like a dog on a leash, then, for all practical purposes, one is an insect or a dog. Only the niceties of language would have it otherwise. But in the world of The Metamorphosis or Godot, these formalities are as vital as a crumbling Grecian column. And this despite the fact that there are other voices echoing amongst the ruins, amid spotlights and costumes, while massive marble slabs come crashing down, crushing anything in their path.
Waiting for Godot was first performed in 1952 and in an early draft Beckett had given one of the characters a Jewish name. It must have been difficult for viewers at the time not to see a parallel in Lucky and Pozzo to Nazi oppressors and concentration camp inmates. In fact we know that the artists in the camps were forced to perform, just as Pozzo, with the aid of a whip, forces Lucky to perform. Jerking violently on the leash, Pozzo screams: “Think, pig!” Once commanded, Lucky launches into a speech that is at once shocking, comical and nonsensical. And once started he cannot stop. Going faster and faster, getting louder and louder, his auditors find the experience so unbearable that they have to make him stop.
There are a lot of bad performances of Lucky’s speech on YouTube, a sprinkling of good ones. This is the best I’ve seen (the speech starts at 3:20).
Garrulous prose: a child’s mere babble. And yet a man who drools, the idiot, the man of tears who restrains himself no longer, who lets himself go—he too is without words, bereft of power, but still he is closer to speech that flows and flows away than to writing which restrains itself, even if this be restraint beyond mastery. In this sense, there is no silence if not written: broken reserve, a deep cut in the possibility of any cut at all.
—Blanchot, p 8
This, by the way, is why Blanchot’s books are the longest short books in the world. There are oceans of silence behind his black words. Lucky’s idiotic babbling flows like speech and yet it is without content because it is an irrational jumble of the fodder-bits of written discourses. But even without content it is not without meaning in the sense that it demonstrates a fundamental truth about our relationship to language in the context of Evil, or what Blanchot calls the disaster. Lucky is the precursor to the irrepressible voices in later plays by Beckett, most notably Not I. The voice in Not I seems completely disconnected from living humanity. It bubbles up and then explodes like a geyser, then dies down again, seeming to be an eternal, irrepressible cry forever detached from the tears of its maker. In similar fashion, once Lucky gets going he has to be forced to stop. And his speech bears no resemblance to the normal function of speech. It’s an outrageous outburst of scholarly language broken into pieces with only the useless rhetorical parts remaining—a garbled acadamese in which all substance has been removed, leaving only chaff. It is a breakdown of the rational mind, demonstrating the inability to make any rational sense out of great cruelty and suffering. Evil cannot be explained, only borne.
We have fallen out of being, outside where, immobile, proceeding with a slow and even step, destroyed men come and go.
—Blanchot, p 17
Keep silence. Silence cannot be kept; it is indifferent with respect to the work of art which would claim to respect it—it demands a wait which has nothing to await, a language which, presupposing itself as the totality of discourse, would spend itself all at once, disjoin and fragment endlessly.
—Blanchot, p 29
In Waiting for Godot, all attempts at understanding fail. Everything is broken.
The disaster takes care of everything.
—Blanchot, p 3
Note: a version of this piece was first published on The Bricoleur.