I’ve been fortunate never to have experienced the crippling effects of chronic depression, although I know many people who have; of course I’ve had my share of despair where the world seemed to spin out of control and even sleep, if it could be had, offered no respite. We’ve all spent late nights sprawled on a couch, clicking the hours away with a remote control in one hand, not to find anything worth watching for none exists, trapped in an eternal loop of channel surfing designed to keep sleep at bay for to close one’s eyes is to revive trolls and gnomes; and in the other hand a “smartphone” checking meaningless Facebook updates to authenticate the feeling that we’re not alone in this spiraling vortex.
Try as we may to resist it, we are hardwired to television (and these days sundry technological bits and pieces). TV sets outnumber people in an average US household! And that does not include those other digital devices. Does that mean we’ll engage more with a television program at home than with another human being? Are we that obsessed with distracting ourselves? From what, I wonder? Being alone? Not alone by ourselves, though that too, but alone with our thoughts. Do we fill our days with sidetracking paraphernalia to avoid the agony of introspection which would inevitably lead to the central question of our lives—our mortality? The consuming question is this: are our lives being driven by the specter of death? Is that behind our attempts to fill every moment with something, anything, just to avoid confronting the only truth of which we are certain? Are we trying to divert ourselves from ourselves? What fears lurk beneath the urgency to keep busy, rushing through manufactured tasks and mundane events, going to church, jamming trivia into our days as though they were somehow meaningful, bestowing significance on them by virtue of our attention, deluding ourselves by clinging to an impuissant work ethic, a hand-me-down from past generations that prized it above all else? We save very little time for vacations, have the least number of public holidays of any country, and when we do take a break we’re lucky if we find time to enjoy a sunset!
When I first read Samuel Beckett’s anguished cry (the title of this essay) from his seminal work, Waiting for Godot, the full implications of it didn’t really strike me, although it vaguely echoed Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” Since then my fascination with the so-called Theatre of the Absurd has offered insights into the world as I traveled across the globe, making more sense of what I saw than I cared to admit. Looking through literature I found those sentiments reflected in other works—the sacrifices of “scapegoated” heroic figures from Shakespearean and Greek tragedies seek transcendence from the desolation of the human condition; comedic structures attempt to reorder societies by changing the rhythms of the old world to fit the melodies of youth, exchanging a past for a future that will in time become replete with similar characteristics that made the past so unpalatable! The tortuous cycle continues.
These depictions offer only glimpses of hope as they strain against overwhelming realities. King Lear ends in a world as hopeless and barren as can be imagined, prompting Beckett to use the king and his fool metaphorically in Endgame, that entropic image of a world we have destroyed. For all his eternal optimism, Dickens’ brilliance lies in his excoriating portrayals of industrial London where little orphans were swallowed by rapacious thugs lurking in alleys and the trammels of England’s Courts of Chancery ensnared families for decades! Any journey through his pages cannot ignore the glowering pessimism of the nineteenth century and the crushing weight of factories and machines leading to disenchantment and inertia—Chekhov’s characters are unable to rise from their indolence and go to Moscow, preferring to yearn for what will never come, for longing is their raison d’etre, replacing vibrancy with torpor, banishing the cherry orchard to the lumber yard as commercialism and utility sweep away beauty and grace, false notions anyway, having been acquired on the backs of serfs and the underclass!
The machines have changed, but the effects persist—digital technology, once hailed with the same enthusiasm as the industrial machinery of the nineteenth century, is viewed with growing suspicion as intrusive, leading to questions of privacy and loss of identity, reducing us to disembodied voices on answering machines or twitter feeds. The ability to stay in contact with a swath of people robs us of the desire to do so; if it’s always available it loses its urgency, without which we drift into isolation, cocooned by the minutiae of every day, paralyzed by the burden of trying to authenticate our existence.
The midcentury Absurdists responded to humankind adrift from its spiritual moorings, prey to chaos and randomness in the desolate wasteland of post-war Europe. Into this wilderness the age of television shoveled gobs of products that vainly tried to fill the emotional void. Cities conflated into conurbations and Suburban became the new aspiration. Rows of neatly manicured lawns, topiary gardens, and replicated houses inexorably cloned the same neighborhood throughout the country, eviscerating individuality through suburban sameness and a proliferation of me-too products. Have you noticed how many toothbrushes are available in a store? It’s hard to decide between all the promises they offer, each one so specifically designed (they would have you believe) that the only solution seems to be to use all of them at once! They are soft, medium, hard, of varying lengths, with bristles of different materials, designed to work around or massage the gums, to find crevices where we thought none existed; battery operated, sonically focused, with differing whirring actions (clockwise, anti-clockwise), vibrations, and on and on and on. Here’s the result of a Japanese study on toothbrushing (if you skip to the end you won’t miss much):
The purpose of this study (Report 5) was to investigate the effect of difference in the length of toothbrush shank and type of tip of toothbrush bristle on toothbrushing pressure and plaque removal in the scrubbing method. Four kinds of toothbrushes which were different in length of shank (30 mm, 40 mm) and type of bristle tip (round type, tapered type respectively) were used in this study. Referring to the results of our previous reports (1-4), the dimension of new toothbrushes were determined as follows, nylon bristles: 40 mm long and 0.20 mm in diameter, brushing surface: 30 mm long, bristles: 3 rows with 26 tufts, and a straight handle. Twelve subjects participated in this experiment. Plaque scores were measured before and after toothbrushing. Then plaque removal rates were calculated. Toothbrushing pressure was determined using Watanabe’s method. The average toothbrushing pressure of the toothbrush with a 40 mm long shank (301.6 +/- 84.1 g/cm2) was higher than that with a 30 mm long shank (294.7 +/- 74.8 g/cm2), and that with a tapered bristle type (316.7 +/- 90.4 g/cm2) was higher than that with a round type bristle (279.6 +/- 61.7 g/cm2). However statistically significant differences were not found among the four toothbrushes in brushing pressure and in plaque removal on total teeth surfaces and on distal surfaces of the most posterior teeth (P less than 0.05; two-way ANOVA). (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2489554)
We don’t purchase products any more—they buy us!! Walking through shopping aisles we are attacked by displays that scream for attention; row upon shiny row leer as we glide past, similar to walking through a jail cell corridor showered by abuse from inmates on either side. Under relentless pressure we succumb, reach out and grab one; maybe we even read the specifications on the container to delude ourselves into believing we made a wise choice. But the selection is quite random, for the plethora of available products deadens our ability to choose. With our identities eviscerated by years of slavery to the gods of marketing strategies, we don’t know who we are, much less what we really want. We are now on sale, possessed by our possessions—clothes, household products, food, holiday resorts, TV channels, movies, books, and everything else; we have to take what we are given. They choose us!
There’s a moment in Ionesco’s Bald Soprano where the Smiths are discussing Bobby Watson’s death, reported in the newspaper; as the conversation proceeds we realize every single one of Bobby Watson’s relatives is named Bobby Watson. Of course, the amusing irony is that a couple named Smith is making this discovery. Keeping up with the Joneses (or Smiths) has turned us into Joneses, with the same houses, same clothes, and the same status updates. Look through the myriad photographs on Facebook and after a while the pictures of kids, families, and vacations devolve into endless cycles of sameness. We are all Bobby Watsons, interchangeable and alike, indistinguishable from one another, with nothing meaningful to say. Our political and social parties and FB profiles are vain attempts to distinguish us but very little there is unique.
A million times a year the same greeting, “How’re you doing?” is parroted by the same response, an exchange completed without losing a beat, with no real attempt to discover anything new about the other person. Are we afraid to divulge personal details or do we really not have anything personal to disclose? If Ionesco is right and we are transposable then no interpersonal exchange is possible. “Have a nice day” is just a bare acknowledgement that we’re sharing space on this planet, a reflexive response between automatons whose language is now devoid of its original purpose. The unique signifiers of words blend one into the other and degenerate into cookie-cutter expressions, filling the world with a terrible noise. All that’s left are words without meaning and prattle as language. The art of conversation, linked to our loss of identity, has degenerated into never-ending cycles of regurgitated banality, reduced to “tweets” and absurd status updates—absurd because, like the old couple in Ionesco’s Chairs, we’ve deluded ourselves into believing that anything we say (like this essay, for example) has meaning for anyone else!
Towards the end of The Bald Soprano dialogue descends into gibberish, culminating in a show of aggression. Failure to communicate leaves violence as the only option, for we desperately need something to remind us that we’re alive, that we still live in a social world, but all we have are anger, violence, and the instinct to survive—witness global skirmishes and full-fledged wars, ethnic cleansing, government sponsored torture, terrorism, street violence, political discourse and TV discussions that are shouting matches, mass murders in villages, movie theatres, and even temples! The jungle paths to destruction have always been available, obscured sometimes by the underbrush of forced civility, but easily accessible when survival is at stake.
This is the Age of Saturn, a sullen, scowling time where malevolence permeates the republic and millions of bloggers can pen their unfiltered thoughts; where politicians lie with impunity and truth is lost among thousands of commercials; where we cling to worthless promises because we’re desperate to believe someone cares about us; a time of distrust, skepticism, and fear! Music now finds its greatest audience only through competitions and the hushed loveliness of verse has descended into poetry slams. A hundred years ago Expressionists rebelled against the dehumanizing effects of an industrial age, distorting reality to give vent to passions and feelings, releasing their creative streams unencumbered by constraints of logic or order; they themselves were victims of an emotional angst that settled upon Europe before exploding in a massive conflagration across the continent. It almost seems like we have come full circle ten decades later. In the new reality of this century, language and relationships have been compressed and distorted—140 characters (as random as the work of Dadaists) are enough to say what we feel and the social networks of cyberspace have supplanted front porches, parish halls, and even playgrounds. We can now count the number of “friends” we have right there in the left column and on the right we know exactly what we “like.” And still we are alone. Waiting…
Earlier I alluded to the fear of death being the driving force behind much of what we do, suggesting that much of what we do are merely distractions designed to keep us from contemplating the void. Perhaps the most successful thing is to make it through each day. When one considers the absolute haphazardness of life (people dying accidentally or being stricken with fatal diseases—who among us doesn’t know someone we love in this situation?) it’s a small miracle we are alive at any moment! Despite the winding down of the world in Endgame they are left with the possibility of tomorrow; Godot never comes but Everyman still waits on the empty road; we persist. The original French title of the play is En Attendant Godot, WHILE waiting for Godot! Like Beckett’s tramps we find ways to amuse ourselves while waiting for the end—we play games, make art, have sex, get drunk, persevere in our jobs, convince ourselves that death is not tomorrow, and do a million things that slap our faces to wake us to the fact that we’re alive. In the end, perhaps that’s enough!