Ioana Sion (University of Toronto, Canada)
Descent to Zero: Godot’s Waiting Self in Dante’s Waiting Room
My paper scrutinises the correspondences between Waiting for Godot and canto 3, the “waiting room” of the Inferno, explores the ontological function of the four characters in connection with Dante and analytical psychology, and finally focuses on the emerging model of the immanent, universal soul of contemporary man proposed by the playwright.
There is enough textual evidence that Dante is unequivocally present in the Beckettian play - once again revealing Beckett’s lifetime dialogue with the Florentine poet. Christopher Ricks, among many, acknowledges that “from first to last, Dante was crucial to the author whose final days at the end of 1989 were spent with a copy of The Divine Comedy.”
Dante’s concept of neutrality is a compelling metaphor for Beckett’s infernal drama. “As the pagan Virgil was recruited as guide by the Christian Dante, so Beckett recruits the Christian Dante as his guide to the post-theological universe he inhabits.” In Waiting for Godot, a tissue of Dantesque intertextualities reveals Beckett’s intricate appropriation of the Inferno in terms of space, time, setting and characters.
Beckett leads us to the self’s ground zero, to the dissolution of the conscious personality into its functional components. Jung compares this inward regression to a descent into Hell. Godot’s infernal characters appear as the four archetypal components of contemporary man, a dismembered human image of the modern world.
The four archetypes of the psyche re-establish a traditional prototype for the modern consciousness as a mix between the active and contemplative types, between the Western and Eastern models, between the “historical vision of humanity seen as the perpetuation of Cain and Abel,” and the timeless, “non-historical humanity of the two tramps,” associated with the highly developed spirit of the meditative poet and with Jesus, the most accomplished archetype of the self.
Beckett’s drama emerges as a ritual preparation for the journey beyond life and death. Dante’s concept of neutrality is subverted, the grim waiting room becomes a necessary stage in the process of individuation and renewal. The zero encapsulates a totality, it is symbolised by a circle and represents the completion of the cycle of life. Beckett dramatises the impossibility of unity while celebrating the existence of the one as the other side of the zero. The four parts of the self are reshaped “into a collage/montage which is itself the ‘degree zero’ of psychic unity and semantic plurality.” Beckett’s neutrals aspire to the point zero where all difference is neutralised and wholeness is attained. Just as Dante uses Satan’s fall from heaven, which created the Mountain of Purgatory on the other side of earth, as the way by which humankind can return to heaven, Beckett uses the parable of the zero soul as a means by which the reader/spectator can retrace the path to wholeness.
Through the re-enactment on stage of a modern mandala within a Dantesque frame, Beckett’s play provides not just a metaphor for our existence, but acquires a metaphysical quality of transformation and regeneration. It conjures up spiritual rebirth while performing a ritual of inner descent to the central point zero or wholeness of being. In times of crisis, Beckett attempts the healing of the modern soul by summoning up old archetypes, which have the therapeutic effect of re-establishing balance and order. The reconciling vision of the mandala provides a feeling of harmony and guides us inwards and downwards to the ultimate centre of our self.
Christopher Ricks, Beckett’s Dying Words (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995) 27.
Hugh Haughton, “Purgatory Regained? Dante and Late Beckett” Dante’s Modern Afterlife. Reception and Response from Blake to Heaney. Ed. Nick Havely (New York: Macmillan Press, 1998) 142.
Walter A. Strauss, “Dante’s Belacqua and Beckett’s Tramps,” Comparative Literature XI.3 (1959): 257.
Didier Anzieu, “Beckett and the Psychoanalyst,” Journal of Beckett Studies 4.1 (1994):