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YODA

Samuel Beckett

While scientific progress in the past two centuries has enriched our understanding of and command over the natural world at a near inconceivable pace, it has simultaneously contrived in Western man a near-hegemonic biological positivist conception of ourselves and of our ultimate purpose in this universe -- one that offers none of the timeless consolations afforded us by the mythologies and religions of prior times. Moreover, all this vaunted progress should, according to the implications of the Enlightenment, have made us a kindler, gentler, and more humane species. Yet, the events of this past century -- World Wars and atomic bombs, ethnic cleansings and the Holocaust -- indicate that, while better nutrition may have made our bodies taller and our lives longer, we seem only to have become nastier and more brutish. (As T.S. Eliot, Modernity's poet, aptly put it, "Between the idea and the reality falls the Shadow.")

Like the writings of his philosophical and literary predecessors (Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Kafka), his artistic contemporaries in the French existentialist school (Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre), and his most direct aesthetic descendant (Tom Stoppard), Samuel Beckett's works explore this crisis of meaning in the Western world. Throughout his essays, poems, and plays, Beckett combines the existentialism of his adopted home country of France with the innate Irish gift for combating despair with biting humor and sheer absurdity.

The best example of Beckett's unique variant of existentialism is his most famous play, Waiting for Godot. The story follows the actions, or non-actions, of two men -- Vladimir and Estragon -- as they incessantly wait for the promised arrival of one Mr. Godot. The two friends bide the time talking, playing games, and becoming increasingly more frenetic about the tardiness of their appointment, until the very purpose of their waiting, or even of their existence, becomes one of crushing magnitude.

No questions are answered, and no fears assuaged, by the conclusion of the play. On the contrary, the absurdity of Vladimir and Estragon's conversations grows increasingly more like thin, fragile ice over a bottomless chasm. Simultaneously hilarious and utterly chilling in its depiction of man's defenses against the void, Waiting for Godot richly deserves the acclaim it has received around the world.

I have yet to read Beckett's first novel, Murphy, although I probably should.

Beckett beckons.

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