Sunday, November 29, 2009

How Beckett Struck Gold

I’m going to be perfectly honest: when I first read Samuel Beckett’s "Act Without Words", I was confused. Hella confused. As much as I hate to admit it (especially given that I’m an English major whose focus is creative writing), I’ve never been very good at pure and self-contained symbolism. But after repeated re-readings and Ben’s oh-so-amazing précis, I finally discerned the main points of Beckett’s drama: that even when circumstances prohibit us from doing what we should be able to do (when someone’s thirsty, they should be free to have a drink of water) or what we could do (when someone possesses the means to secure their own sustenance, they should be free to use those means to pursue what they desire to the height of their individual potentiality) we’re still able to practice the option of what we cannot do. That, in Beckett’s view, is our ultimate and unalienable freedom: to not act. Such a perspective may seem completely antithetical to so many of Beckett’s preceding existentialist colleagues – such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Unamuno – who all argue that man’s greatest freedom is to go forth and act with purpose. But when examined closely (which multiple readings allows ample room for), his argument actually strikes at the heart of all existentialist theories: that even when robbed of all opportunities to act, man is still free. And as a quick perusal through my notes reveals, such a notion has famous company, especially in the works of Feodor Dostoevsky.

In "Notes from Underground", Dostoevsky famously declares, “I am a sick man. . . I am a spiteful man. I am unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased” (38). Based on that premise, one automatically thinks of what he could do (see a doctor) or what he should be able to do (pursue any option he wishes for curing himself of his ailment), but instead Dostoevsky’s narrator instead chooses to do nothing at all and simply “let[s] it get even worse” (39). Why? Because he can, because this freedom to pursue even what is seemingly detrimental to himself is what he believes to be the only thing that differentiates himself from an unthinking organ stop.

Of course, it can be argued that in that regard, the theories of Dostoevsky and Beckett are worlds apart: Beckett’s protagonist arrives at this realization through necessity whereas Dostoevsky’s narrator pursues this option out of choice. But regardless of the routes taken, the resulting insight does not tarnish in the slightest. In fact, the final moment of Beckett’s play where the protagonist gazes at his hands could be interpreted as the protagonist’s comprehension of his freedom and capacity to act, even in that moment of not acting. Now, whether that moment should be seen as an instance of hopefulness over still possessing the ability to act even in the absence of suitable means, or a submission to complete and utter despair over being able to act but having nothing to act upon, one cannot be sure. In a literal sense, that would all depend on the manner in which each individual director manipulates the text for the stage. But therein lies the shining kernel of existentialist philosophy: like the possibility for sheer hopefulness or inconsolable despair, we are free to do absolutely anything or utterly nothing. But no matter what, even when our surroundings rob us of absolutely everything, we can still think, we can still decide, we are still free.


  1. I think this blog presents a very interesting analysis of freedom even when we do not act. After reading this blog in light of Beckett and Dostovesky, it helps me further realize that no acting at all is in fact taking some kind of an action. It is a misconception that not acting is being limited and not exercising freedom or making a decision. However, I agree with the main blog spot in that we are able to not act because we are always able to use freedom; not acting is still choose to act a certain way though it might be passive.

  2. I really enjoyed this blog. I think the act of not-acting is one of the most provocative aspects of existentialism. Philosophers such as Dostoevsky and Beckett claim that we are still entirely free even if something deprives of us of our freedom. However, I feel that because the freedom is limited, we cannot be entirely free. If we are deprived of food or water that is unattainable, the means of attaining these resources have control over our freedom. While we can still think and form opinions, we are deprived of obtaining what we desire, thus freedom must be limited.

  3. I agree, but even in the time where freedom is seemingly limited you still have the freedom of choice--what to do with this restriction. You can either sulk and wish you had food or water all you want, but even so, you are chosing to restrict yourself. I guess freedom itself is never restricted or limited--we just make it restricted or limited? I guess it's kind of like the one man's trash is another's treasure kind of thing. Under the same circumstances, one man might think his life is over without food and water, but the other will take it as an opportunity to grow, or something. I think we might choose to limit our freedom.


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