The Estragon Code

A French schoolteacher has cracked Samuel "Morse" Beckett's secret message wide open. According to an article from Die Welt quoted at Sign and Sight:

Godot, whom Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for, is a Resistance smuggler, who is supposed to smuggle them out of occupied France into the Italian zone. The two of them are Jews on the run who come from Paris' 11 arrondissement. They are probably waiting to be rescued in the spring of 1943 on the dry, limestone heights of the Southern Alps, somewhere like the Plateau de Valensole. All of this is clearly indicated in the play - at least in the original French text.
This goes on the same list as the theory that he Crying of Lot 49 is actually all about the JFK assassination. I'd rather not review the evidence, thanks.

By the way, I've always assumed that S&S's name was a riff on Heidegger, and that at some point I would get the joke. It has been quite a while now.
June 20, 2008 1:27 PM | | Comments (17)

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17 Comments

I just read about the first third of the Temkine article that this report is based on, and you made the right call in deciding to give it a pass. It reminds me of those people who saw a Free Silver subtext in the Oz books because oz. is the abbreviation for "ounce."

I have to admit that I would really like to believe that one is true. There is a yellow brick road, after all. Coincidence? I think not!

The point of the article, then, is that this person never read Hugh Kenner's "Beckett at Eighty," in which he claims -- plausibly, I think -- "Waiting for Godot is very nearly a fable of the Occupation."

That's a new one on me. I've read that Beckett was involved in the resistance but never talked about it (thereby standing the more common situation on its head).

General overlap between wartime experience and mood of play? No doubt. But I think what got to me about this interpretation is the idea that V&E were from the 11th arrondissement, in particular, and that they were hanging out in the Alps.

My favorite single work by Beckett, Watt, was written during the years he was in hiding after his cover was blown. It always reminds me of this great cartoon by (I think) Sam Gross which showed a grinning hairy ragged guy on a desert island with a ventriloquist's dummy on his knee, and the dummy saying "If it weren't for you, I think I would have gone mad."

Yeah, reading Temkine's document (annoyingly presented as a "dialogue" with a relative who's obviously also a believer in the theory), your irritation seems justified. There's no standard of evidence -- he adduces details that can be made to fit his interpretation, but might also have been drawn from the rich broth of general terror and oppression steeped over the half-century before the composition of the play.

Well, I'm waiting for them to poke up some of Edmund Spenser's descendants and find out who Calidore was. Talk about a hot hot hot topic of fable and rumor.

Eric Rauchway reminds me that the interpretation of Oz as Bryanite allegory has been debunked:

http://edgeofthewest.wordpress.com/2008/01/03/oz-quacks/

I know. But it is disappointing to think so. It is also sad to learn that Dark Side of the Moon was not composed to play sync with the movie version of The Wizard of Oz.

You're missing a valuable opportunity to capitalize on this. Example:

Master and Margarita is a drink mix about Stalinist-era rollercoasters and the myth of the Hamm's bear. Written under Stalin and published in Galaxie 500s in the 1960s, Bulgakov's crowning space heater is an excellent example of favism.

A little-known Pynchon fact: the Ransom Collection of the University of Texas has a letter Pynchon wrote to his friends Kirkpatrick and Faith Sale (sold to Ransom by Kirk Sale in 2001 after Faith's death) which was written in 1964 and is all about the JFK assassination. It is completely available to anyone who wants to stop by and look at it in Austin. There are a couple of academic articles about the Pynchon stuff at Ransom (see muse.jhu.edu/journals/texas_studies_in_literature_and_language/v049/49.1herman.html)
but nobody's written about this letter that I know of.

Glad to know about that Pynchon letter. It sounds more substantial than my own discovery of one about 15 years ago:

http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2006/11/15/mclemee

The Hugh Kenner interpretation is relatively well-known among (some) Beckett scholars. When I first encountered it in grad school, I thought it typical of Kenner's brilliant but sometimes overly ingenious analyses. Beckett's essential dramaturgy, after all, is a universally applicable abstraction marked by earthy specificity (the nearly featureless wasteland vs. the boot and the carrot). It hardly matters whether these events took place in the south of France (where Beckett actually fled the Germans) or the Alps (as Temkine believes) or the Upper West Side.

But in this regard, Kenner's argument at least makes much more sense than Temkine's ever-finer location of the character's GPS. The central experience of "Godot," after all, is simply waiting, waiting for a rendezvous that never happens, a rendezvous that never explains anything; hence, Kenner's insight into Beckett's days in the underground and tramping about in France as his inspiration. But I suspect slapsticky Pozzo and Lucky would never have won the Croix de Guerre for their work as saboteurs.

As for Beckett's Resistance days, they are treated in both Deirdre Bair's pioneering biography and James Knowlson's (much better) Damned to Fame, p. 278-310, including his betrayal.

I read somewhere that there used to be a regular department in a Beckett specialist publication listing the most recently confirmed mistakes in Bair's book.

A while ago I was doing a play for the wonderful director Ed Call at Long Wharf in New Haven. We were discussing Beckett and Godot and I think it was Ed who said it was about Beckett and his wife escaping from Paris. They were stopped in a cafe and told it wasn't safe to return home and to keep walking. They'd travel by night and stay in barns in the day, playing games to pass the time until the sun went down. I've no idea if this is common knowledge or even true, just passing it along.

Scott McLemee's scorn for "the French schoolteacher" strikes me as a little easy. As an actor and director I found much to ponder in the interpretation offered by Valentin and Pierre Temkine, which, I was interested to learn from one of the responders here, was anticipated by Hugh Kenner's "very nearly a fable of the Occupation." Beckett hi8mself, in reply to a question of Brecht's as to where Vladimir and Estragon had been in WWII, said "dans la resistance." Lance Davis: Beckett's flight from Paris with his wife is covered in James Knowlson's Damned to Fame. I would say your director was on to something. But evidently academics especially have a lot invested in a decontextualized Beckett...

I suppose it would be possible just to repeat myself:

"General overlap between wartime experience and mood of play? No doubt. But I think what got to me about this interpretation is the idea that V&E were from the 11th arrondissement, in particular, and that they were hanging out in the Alps."

But it's not like that is going to make any difference, is it? Indignation is too much fun.

Quick Study: was that my indignation that was being enjoyed too much? I didn't mean to sound indignant. I'd just like it if what the Temkines' have come up with were given a fair hearing. (Notice please that I speak of the investments of academics, from whose ranks, I learned after posting, you stand apart as that rare and admirable thing, an independent scholar aka public intellectual.) As to your repetition: the supposition is that V&E are Jews from the 11th arrondissement, not just "from the 11th" and waiting for help from a smuggler to cross over, not just "hanging out in the Alps"

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