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Lucky's Thinking Act

Updated on February 25, 2017


In Act I of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, Pozzo, for the amusement of Vladimir and Estragon, commands Lucky to “Think, pig!”, perhaps mocking the traditional phrase, ‘Think big’. So Lucky faces the auditorium and commences his speech. In turn, what the audience is confronted with is the most graphic ritual in the play. Being a fine theatrical writing, Lucky’s speech is such that it justifies the idiom: ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’

Many critics, including Martin Esslin, consider Lucky’s thinking act as a ‘wild schizophrenic word salad’. At the outset this speech appears to be utter gibberish. It has no punctuation and is delivered at a break-neck speed. There is lack of coherence as random allusions and references are made. Yet, a deeper look at the speech makes it intelligible. There is method in madness. It brings about a sense that words have been put together haphazardly to produce a particular structure, and, in turn, meaning. In this way, Lucky’s speech is a reflection of the play itself in concise form as it produces meaning from its formlessness and lack of content. In fact, Beckett himself remarked on this speech: ‘The threads and themes of the play are being gathered together [in this speech].’ He further explains that the theme of this monologue, as that of the play, is ‘to shrink on an impossible earth under an indifferent heaven’.

Section I of Lucky's Speech

To provide some sort of structure to Lucky’s speech, it can be roughly divided into three sections. The first section indicates at an apathetic God who is absent and, therefore, indifferent to the predicament of human beings. In fact, the very existence of God is in doubt. Lucky speaks of a personal God whose authority is arbitrarily derived from anybody, even a ticket puncher (Puncher) or a tramp driver (Wattmann). He is referred to as “quaquaquaqua with white beard”. “qua” means God as an essential being, but repeated four times, “quaquaquaqua” sounds like a bird’s call. This makes the notion of God as open-ended – God is either an essential being or He is an essential non-sense. The speech also talks about “divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia”. In modern times, religion has lost its agency to provide relief to humanity. Therefore, God seems least concerned to human plight, unmoved by the sorry condition of humankind and unwilling to communicate any consoling words to ease its pain. Lucky says, “God… loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown”. This Calvinistic notion further accentuates the arbitrariness accorded to God in the modern world. The truth about salvation and damnation depends upon mere chance; “time will tell,” says Lucky. But as the speech progresses, one is left uncertain as to when this time would come for God to save some and condemn others.

Section II of Lucky's Speech

Section two of Lucky’s speech evinces human beings in modern times as those who “shrink and dwindle”. It points out how humans engage in various activities in their efforts to improve themselves, but all in vain. Beckett uses the mouthpiece of Lucky to attack all academies and human sciences (such as anthropometry) that, according to him, are “labours left unfinished” even as they attempt to deal with human concerns. Thus, intellectual efforts of human beings are undigested, a matter of “alimentation and defecation”. In this way, it is a satire on the Enlightenment project that promised progress for the good of humanity, yet failed to deliver as it led to gruesome world wars, causing modern human beings great loss and suffering. Thus, academics, which is considered the foundation of progress, is largely seen as a sterile exercise. Even when human beings try to structure their lives around physical activities, such as sports, they are bereft of any hope of dealing with their present condition.

Beckett further makes reference to empirical philosophers, such as Berkeley and Voltaire, to subvert the notion of rationality in human beings. Berkeley’s philosophy, especially, is interesting to ponder over. He revised Descartes famous saying – ‘I think, therefore I am’ – to ‘To be is to be perceived’. As a bishop and a philosopher, he advocated that the mental substances of human beings are a reflection of God’s infinite mind. The fact that God perceives us makes for our reality. However, this argument is highly problematic in terms of modern development. It is because in modern times God’s absence has to be filled by somebody else to acknowledge human existence. Probably that is why in Act I of Waiting for Godot, Pozzo keeps demanding everyone’s attention before he is to perform any act. As God’s power has abated in the modern world, one’s existence is contingent on others’ perception of oneself, even though this perception is fragmentary.

History is a witness that humans have always wanted to be perceived as rational superior beings. In doing so, they suppress their irrational bestial thoughts. But eventually, these thoughts find an outlet, maybe in the form of gibberish outpouring, as seen in Lucky’s case. Lucky’s speech seems like the ramblings of an overburdened mind. Lucky, as Pozzo admits, is a “mine of information” who seems to have all the answers. But with time, his condition has deteriorated and his mind, in trying to cope with all the information, has collapsed under the mental burden he is carrying, just as he is carrying physical burden. The speech, then, looks like the exposure of man’s fragility, especially of his rationality. Therefore, Berkeley’s philosophy is negated in the speech as it is still grappling with human reality and is, in consequence, impotent. In this way, the speech contains a mix of philosophical ideas to suggest that none of these can help humanity to understand its precarious position in an uncertain universe.

Nevertheless, even as Lucky keeps reiterating that everything happens for “reasons unknown”, yet he repeatedly says, “I resume”. It is clear that even though human efforts are meaningless, yet one must strive to achieve something positive. There are no certainties in life, as this play exhibits, yet, paradoxically, this statement in itself seems fixed. Thus, there is duality in the play just as there is duality and contradictions in modern life.

Section III of Lucky's Speech

Such contradictions finally lead to the ultimate certainty – death. Lucky envisages in the third section of his speech an apocalyptic earth where Nature would have run its course and darkness would prevail. He arouses the imagery of skulls and stones to present the most pessimistic picture of life, even as it is undercut by his constant “I resume”. In the end, the speech turns into incoherent ramblings. This complete breakdown of language suggests its inability to communicate eloquently the various meanings, which may give structure to life.

Post-modernistic Interpretation of Lucky's Speech

While it has become difficult to structure modern life, Lucky seems to be structuring his speech by mimicking different attitudes – ‘in voice and gesture he mimics first the parson warning us of hell-fire, then the lucidly obscure lecturer who draws upon an endless line of authorities to make his indeterminate point, then the sportsperson advocating the cult of the body, then the strangely Cockney businessman who advises us to measure the facts, and lastly the prophet and poet foreboding doom’ (J L Styan, The Dark Comedy, 1968). However, this structure too falls short of imparting any meaning to modern life.

Jeffrey Nealon, in “Samuel Beckett and the Post-moderns”, finds this incoherence in Lucky’s speech to be emancipatory. He argues that the speech is a fine example of post-modernist thinking. Post-modernism delights in pastiche of fragments, which Lucky’s speech provides in a brilliant delivery. In Nealon’s opinion, Vladimir and Estragon represent modernist thinkers who try to structure their life by “waiting for Godot” so as to create meaning of their life’s narrative. Beckett, through Lucky’s speech, rips apart such narratives as he deconstructs western thought. He is mocking the notion of universal truths by defying all meta-narratives. For example, he deconstructs metaphysics that talks of “reasons unknown” of which “time will tell”. Beckett suggests that even when time passes, it does not reveal anything substantial. In this way, he is exposing the limits of western thought.

This fresh take on Lucky’s speech also justifies Foucauldian notion of power-knowledge nexus. Well-established rational structures of discourse suppress any agent that challenges their power. This is shown in the play through distressed characters – Pozzo, Vladimir and Estragon – who feel threatened by Lucky’s knife-life words which draw a real picture of modern life. Therefore, they knock-off his hat, which is an act of physical violence, to silence him.

Lucky's Thinking Act


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