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Posted By Patrick

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir ponder ways to kill time while waiting for Godot. And then they ponder ways of killing themselves:

Vladimir: What do we do now.
Estragon: Wait
Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting.
Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?
Vladimir: Hmm. It’d give us an erection.
Estragon: (highly excited). An erection!
Vladimir: With all that follows. Where it falls mandrakes grow. That’s why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?
Estragon: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!
Vladimir: From a bough? (they go towards the tree.) I wouldn’t trust it.
Estragon: We can always try.
Vladimir: Go ahead.
Estragon: After you.
Vladimir: No, you first.
Estragon: Why me?
Vladimir: You’re lighter than I am.
Estragon: Just so!
Vladimir: I don’t understand.
Estragon: Use your intelligence.
Vladimir uses his intelligence.
Vladimir: (finally) I remain in the dark.

What I like about this passage, in terms of intelligence history at any rate, is how Beckett in his stage direction presents intelligence as a thing that one can use – a tool, like a hammer or a theodolite. The play is written in 1953, and I wonder how much earlier this line could have been written. That is: when does intelligence assume “thing” status? Anyone know? I’m guessing that this happens around when we learn to quantify or count it up via IQ scores, and to speak of people having a specified amount – their quota – of intelligence. So, broadly around the end of the nineteenth century. Countability implies a certain thingness, which Beckett turns into an intelligence that Vladimir uses. But the tool doesn’t work, and he remains in the dark.

And why does Estragon want Vladimir to hang himself first? Because if the tree holds Vladimir, it will hold Estragon, and both can successfully hang themselves, ejaculating as they die. But if it holds Estragon first, it might not do the same for Vladimir. Who would then be alone, and lonely… and, perhaps from Estragon’s point of view, would have weaseled out of the suicide pact.

But then, we only have Vladimir’s word for it that he’s the heavier…

2 Comment(s):
Lynne said...
Winnie the Pooh uses his brain in a similar, "I will now think", way to Vladimir...with paltry results. He is, after all, "a bear of very small brain". Beckett's influence on AA Milne? And Milne in turn on children's views of their minds and how they work?
December 6, 2009 08:03:59
Robert McFadden said...
My 1978 copy of Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary includes the following entry under "intelligence": "Archaic: Any informative report received or relayed; news; tidings." I'm hunching that the idea of "intelligence" as a cognitive quality rather than a utility-prone tidbit may turn out to be the newer kid on the block. That might also account for our rather meagre expectations of acumen from institutions bearing named along the lines of "The Central Intelligence Agency".
December 2, 2009 02:09:53
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