Sunday, April 09, 2006

A reasonable percentage

"Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned."
[Saint Augustine]

"One of the thieves was saved. (Pause.) It's a reasonable percentage."

One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Samuel Beckett (whose centenary falls in a few days time) had a deep interest and understanding of the topic of knowledge and uncertainty.

In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir speculates on the possibility of redemption. He starts with the story told by Saint Luke and used by Saint Augustine - that one of the two sinners crucified with Jesus was forgiven. It's a reasonable percentage.

So which of the two characters will be saved: Vladimir or Estragon? (In some interpretations, Vladimir represents the intellectual side of man, while Estragon represents the physical.) Does Vladimir's knowledge of the Bible improve his chances, or his determination to survive? Does his speculative thinking result in presumption or despair?

Vladimir then introduces another degree of uncertainty. Only Saint Luke tells this story about the two sinners. One gospel tells a conflicting story (both were damned), and the other two omit the story altogether. So the uncertainty - the reasonable percentage - is itself based on uncertain information, from contradictory sources.

And what about Beckett himself? Many Christian preachers discuss St Augustine's principle, and often refer to Beckett in passing. For example, Richard Harries (Bishop of Oxford). Meanwhile, Gatsinzi Basaninyenzi regards Godot as an anti-Christian text (largely on the assumption that Godot is supposed to represent God), and provides detailed advice on how to teach such a text from a Christian perspective. Do not presume, do not despair.

Beckett himself repudiated the simple equation of Godot with God. "If by Godot I had meant God I would have said God, and not Godot."

So we have three types of uncertainty here - uncertainty of outcome (one of the thieves was saved), uncertainty of knowledge (only one of the Evangelists tells this story), and uncertainty of meaning (what exactly does Godot represent anyway). Enough to be going on with?

Further material: Champion of Ambiguity (Terry Eagleton), Godot Almighty (Peter Hall), Godot Almighty (Simon Callow).

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