How Far We’ve Come!

Well, it’s a pretty bleak ending to the semester.  I mean, pretty much all the stuff we’ve read for Modernism has been bleak.  The Joyce short stories.  “Dulce Et Decorum Est.”  The chaos of “The Waste Land.”  Alienation in To the Lighthouse.  But Endgame feels worse.  Beckett takes things a step further than the Modernists; they posed questions, and he gives an answer.  The Modernists were responding to industrialization, to the horrors of war, to all these sudden breaks in the established order; they were asking questions, doubting old certainties, wondering where to find meaning, struggling to cope with the chaos.  There is a sense of uncertainty, and often anxiety and stress.  If the Modernists’ writing can be characterized as an anguished cry—“Is there meaning?  Is there hope?”—then Beckett’s writing is a hollow laugh—“No, of course not.”  Actually, similar dialogue takes place in Endgame:

HAMM. We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?

CLOV. Mean something!  You and I, mean something! [Brief laugh.] Ah that’s a good one!

Wilfred Owen denounces patriotism and honor in the modern world, refers to it spitefully, bitterly as “the old lie.”  Like he’s upset, mad, confused.  The characters in Endgame denounce honor too, but they just laugh at it.  Cynical, emotionless, not upset.

NAGG. You swear?

HAMM. Yes.

NAGG. On what?

HAMM. My honor. [Pause.  They laugh heartily.] (2600)

            Endgame has a sense of resigned hopelessness and cynicism.  They say things like, “To hell with the universe” (2598) and “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that” (2601).  It is grating to read or watch—uncomfortable, awkward, pitiful, sad.  The characters are shadows of men—weak, purposeless.  Of course, it’s not all resigned hopelessness and cynicism; there is some sense of weariness in the repeated question, “Why this farce, day after day?” (2585), and there is a small hope in Hamm’s wish to think that “perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing” (2593).  But that hope is quickly extinguished, and you just have to embrace the farce of life.  Human life is an absurd paradox.  We search for meaning in a universe that offers no meaning.

And to think—we started the semester so sure and secure and happy and clear!  I mean, sure, whatever, compare Beckett to the Modernists—but then think back to Robinson Crusoe.  Like, how long ago was that??  He was just puttering around, organizing stuff, all Enlightenment idealistic, talking about how great man is, how much better than the animals because he has thumbs and can make tools, and how he’s conquered nature and everything.  How awesome do we think humans are now?  And technology?  What a joke.  Idiot Robinson Crusoe.  C’mon man.

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