Saturday, November 28, 2009

Camus vs. Beckett

I think that Beckett and Camus have two very different attitudes for the same situation. Beckett tries to make the claim in “Act With Out Words” that the absurd is horrible. While we do have a freedom to choose, the situation we are put in is horrible. In the play the Protagonist is unable to leave a desert; He is unable to make anything productive happen. Any time he finds any meaning in the things he sees, those things are taken away from him. Like when he figures out what to do with the boxes the boxes are taken away, when he figures out he can hang himself on the tree, the tree is taken away. At the end of the story the man resigns himself to doing nothing, plugging his ears, and humming. He decides not to play the game, because he knows that every time he attempts to play he will fail. Beckett’s attitude toward the absurd is one that is torturous and cruel.

Sisyphus is in a similar situation; he is resigned by the Gods to pushing a boulder up a hill. In this task he will inevitably fail, however he keeps trying to push the boulder up the hill. Camus says that this would not be a bad life because he gets to spend eternity pursuing the absurd. He can choose to be happy in the task that he is assigned. Camus point is that we do not have to resign ourselves to unhappiness; we can enjoy the absurd task we are given and take joy in our attempts.

Camus and Becket differ, because while the character in Beckett’s story accepts defeat and resigns himself to nothing, Sisyphus continues to take joy in his task. Beckett’s character did not create his own value for the things he was doing. He only valued the end result of his task, not the act of doing them. Both live in the absurd however one is able to enjoy things while the other does not. Sisyphus had it worse; at least Beckett’s character was able to be given different tasks to enjoy. Sisyphus had to do the same thing over and over. Becket’s character should find happiness in the fact that while he can’t enjoy the fruits of his labor at the end of the day, he can still enjoy his freedom to do things. At least Beckett’s character got boxes he can try to create a value for, a far worse hell would be one where a person is stuck in the desert with absolutely nothing to do, or attempt to do.


  1. I disagree, instead, I think that Beckett's antagonist responds in perhaps an even greater meaning making way that Camus' portrayal of Sisyphus. While one could say that Beckett's character "gives up" on the absurd, I argue that in fact he chooses to ignore it all together, which I think is a wholly different and much more significant response. For example, toward the close of the act, the protagonist does not acknowledge the whistle and taunts of the absurd, sigh, and become depressed at the futile nature of any attempted action, but rather he ignores the absurd altogether; he chooses to assign meaning to an internally created world, driven by contemplation and existing in complete freedom apart from the control of the absurd hell in which he has found himself. In his "own little world inside his head," one could say, he can think whatever he wants, and thus has re-created himself as a free individual even within the constraints of such a hostile and unpredictable world. This re-creation, I think, is equally if not even more noble than Sisyphus' choice to push the rock up the hill, because he has removed himself from the the goals created by the whistle, such as get the water, look over here, etc., and created meditative goals for himself, just as Sisyphus (puportedly) re-created the goal of getting the rock up the hill on an individual level, separate from the mandate of the gods.

  2. Beckett's character had a choice to not act at all while Sisyphus had to keep acting but could choose what mind set implement. The absurdity of life is presented in both but through a different light. Beckett gives his character means such as boxes or rope given by some infinite being to achieve a goal, which gives Becket''s antagonist the option to choose to play or to ignore what is actually going on. While, Sisyphus's fate is to push the rock up the mountain for the rest of his life, however absurd it might be, Sisyphus never has an option to quit but only a choice to change his mindset not quit his actions. The freedom to choose whether to act or what mindset to keep in common in both. Beckett and Camus present absurdity from two different angles.

  3. I agree with you that Beckett's antagonist and Sisyphus had different approaches, but I don't think that Beckett's antagonist necessarily gave up or resigned to the absurd at the end.

    When he stares at his hands it could be that his is simply questioning the purpose of having hands- because he has hands, there must be some point to them, something they are supposed to do. In the beginning it is after this reflection that the tools start to fall around him, presenting tasks that his hands are needed to carry though. After all his projects fail though, the end shows him sitting and again looking at his hands. Despite the fact that his toils are seemingly meaningless, he cannot help but wonder what his purpose could be.

    When I read/watched the final seen, I thought it symbolized a kind of sad hope. Even when his life seems meaningless and he appears resigned to the fact that he can never successfully play the game, I thought that staring at his hands showed a reflective curiosity that would continue to drive his striving for an explanation or purpose for why he has hands. Maybe this hope that he can discover some meaning or explanation for why he exists is enough to keep him going in spite of the meaninglessness of his life. While Sisyphus kept going up the hill out of spite for the meaningless of life, one interpretation of Beckett's character is that instead of resigning to the absurd he will continue to live out of hope that he will create or find a meaning, despite the chance that his situation really may be hopeless.

  4. I am beginning to think that existentialist philosophers overestimate our freedom. To several, we are completely free because we have the ability to think, to deny making a decision, etc. However, another focal point in existentialism is the meaning that we create for ourselves. Mere thought does not produce purpose in one's life. In the case of Beckett's play, the protagonist’s freedom is limited by whatever is removing the items from which he attempts to make a purpose. His thoughts only prove him an existing being (at least to Descartes), but not a productive, purposeful one. It would be incredibly unusual to find happiness in such a situation, when some cruel being has responsibility for one’s freedom.

  5. I sort of agree with you, Jen. Individuals like Frankl show that some measure of is possible even in some of the most dire circumstances. Not to diminish Frankl's suffering or the suffering of other Holocaust survivors-- I'm sure it was something far beyond anything I've ever imagined or experienced---it seems to me that at least Frankl wasn't 100% isolated and alienated in the camps. He at least had others like him there, whom he could bring into his attempts to maintain some sort of positive meaningful existence for himself. Both Sisphysus and Beckett's protagonist are entirely alone and (we are led to believe) trapped in their situations for eternity, or at least the rest of their lives. If that is in fact right--and it definitely is for Sisphysus at least--you have to wonder if it really is possible to be genuinely happy in that circumstance...

    I suppose the existentialist answer to that is "yes, because the individual makes the own meaning for his life." I'm not so sure though that one's self-identity and attitudes alone are sufficient for a meaning that has any real traction. If, for a moment, we bracket the possible reaction of Beckett's protagonist as stubbornly refusing to play the game anymore or any other positive variation (which I agree are definitely plausible interpretations of Beckett's words), and assume that Beckett's protagonist resigns himself to his plight and that's why he stops, fits, and stares at his hands. Would you really say that the protagonist is to blame for his unhappiness at the end of the day? Yeah, the situation he is obviously sucks and might take some or a lot of the blame, but, at the end of the day, he could still try and make a meaning out of his meaningless, absurd situation that was more positive. I agree with that assessment...but right now I'm leaning toward saying holding him responsible for his "choice" in such a situation of curtailed, limited freedom seems somewhat ridiculous....or maybe just leaves us a very emptied out idea of responsibility, since hypothetically if we passed a law or something saying that anyone who shirks from their freedom should be put in jail for 30 days or something, I wouldn't convict the guy if I was on the jury because it seems to me like those extreme examples of Beckett's protagonist and Sisphysus and in such absurd situations that they are either exempt or excused from any meaningful kind of responsibility. Maybe as a matter of taste, I think Sisphysus has a better approach than the resigned Beckett protagonist, but I don't think I have any kind of binding expectation to go along with that judgment.
    Hmm...perhaps that might not be the best example though...since I'd more or less be saying "screw the herd; I'm following my own values/convictions."

    I mean let's think about this. If we found out some real life case of some person who was arrested by the government, put in a room for the rest of his/ life with a bag over their head and tortured repeatedly for the rest of their life, would we really hold that person responsible if they gave up on living? That is, would we say that they ultimately are responsible for that decision, because they had to freely choose it? I'm not sure about anyone else, but I'm having a bit of hard time biting the bullet on that answer.

  6. I suppose I identify too much with Camus' exploration of absurdity and, in some ways, the various reactions he describes, those of the religious existentialists Kierkegaard and Chestov, the more materialist Don Juan, actor, and conqueror, but I cannot help but see the isolation facing the protagonist of Beckett's "Act Without Words" as hopeless and with little opportunity for meaning-making. Without recourse to some reliable God figure, his situation seems to warrant the most unbending despair. From this I understand the thoughts behind his initial actions to be something akin to Frankl's tragic optimism, searching for the optimum in any given situation, but realistically, near the end of the play the protagonist seems to show that some facticities are nearly (or possibly, simply) impossible to effectively (or meaningfully) overcome.


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