Nothing like Godot , he arrived before the hour .
His letter had suggested we meet at my hotel at noon on Sunday , and I came into the lobby as the clock struck twelve .
He was waiting .
My wish to meet Samuel Beckett had been prompted by simple curiosity and interest in his work .
American newspaper reviewers like to call his plays nihilistic .
They find deep pessimism in them .
Even so astute a commentator as Harold Clurman of The Nation has said that `` Waiting For Godot '' is `` the concentrate of the contemporary European mood of despair '' .
But to me Beckett's writing had seemed permeated with love for human beings and with a kind of humor that I could reconcile neither with despair nor with nihilism .
Could it be that my own eyes and ears had deceived me ? ?
Is his a literature of defeat , irrelevant to the social crises we face ? ?
Or is it relevant because it teaches us something useful to know about ourselves ? ?
I knew that a conversation with the author would not settle such questions , because a man is not the same as his writing : in the last analysis , the questions had to be settled by the work itself .
Nevertheless I was curious .
My curiosity was sharpened a day or two before the interview by a conversation I had with a well-informed teacher of literature , a Jesuit father , at a conference on religious drama near Paris .
When Beckett's name came into the discussion , the priest grew loud and told me that Beckett `` hates life '' .
That , I thought , is at least one thing I can find out when we meet .
Beckett's appearance is rough-hewn Irish .
The features of his face are distinct , but not fine .
They look as if they had been sculptured with an unsharpened chisel .
Unruly hair goes straight up from his forehead , standing so high that the top falls gently over , as if to show that it really is hair and not bristle .
One might say it combines the man ; ;
own pride and humility .
For he has the pride that comes of self-acceptance and the humility , perhaps of the same genesis , not to impose himself upon another .
His light blue eyes , set deep within the face , are actively and continually looking .
He seems , by some unconscious division of labor , to have given them that one function and no other , leaving communication to the rest of the face .
The mouth frequently breaks into a disarming smile .
The voice is light in timbre , with a rough edge that corresponds to his visage .
The Irish accent is , as one would expect , combined with slight inflections from the French .
His tweed suit was a baggy gray and green .
He wore a brown knit sports shirt with no tie .
We walked down the Rue De L'Arcade , thence along beside the Madeleine and across to a sidewalk cafe opposite that church .
The conversation that ensued may have been engrossing but it could hardly be called world-shattering .
For one thing , the world that Beckett sees is already shattered .
His talk turns to what he calls `` the mess '' , or sometimes `` this buzzing confusion '' .
I reconstruct his sentences from notes made immediately after our conversation .
What appears here is shorter than what he actually said but very close to his own words .
`` The confusion is not my invention .
We cannot listen to a conversation for five minutes without being acutely aware of the confusion .
It is all around us and our only chance now is to let it in .
The only chance of renovation is to open our eyes and see the mess .
It is not a mess you can make sense of '' .
I suggested that one must let it in because it is the truth , but Beckett did not take to the word truth .
`` What is more true than anything else ? ?
To swim is true , and to sink is true .
One is not more true than the other .
One cannot speak anymore of being , one must speak only of the mess .
When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence , they may be right , I don't know , but their language is too philosophical for me .
I am not a philosopher .
One can only speak of what is in front of him , and that now is simply the mess '' .
Then he began to speak about the tension in art between the mess and form .
Until recently , art has withstood the pressure of chaotic things .
It has held them at bay .
It realized that to admit them was to jeopardize form .
`` How could the mess be admitted , because it appears to be the very opposite of form and therefore destructive of the very thing that art holds itself to be '' ? ?
But now we can keep it out no longer , because we have come into a time when `` it invades our experience at every moment .
It is there and it must be allowed in '' .
I granted this might be so , but found the result to be even more attention to form than was the case previously .
And why not ? ?
How , I asked , could chaos be admitted to chaos ? ?
Would not that be the end of thinking and the end of art ? ?
If we look at recent art we find it preoccupied with form .
Beckett's own work is an example .
Plays more highly formalized than `` Waiting For Godot '' , `` Endgame '' , and `` Krapp's Last Tape '' would be hard to find .
`` What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art .
It only means that there will be new form , and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else .
The form and the chaos remain separate .
The latter is not reduced to the former .
That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation , because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates .
To find a form that accommodates the mess , that is the task of the artist now '' .
Yet , I responded , could not similar things be said about the art of the past ? ?
Is it not characteristic of the greatest art that it confronts us with something we cannot clarify , demanding that the viewer respond to it in his own never-predictable way ? ?
What is the history of criticism but the history of men attempting to make sense of the manifold elements in art that will not allow themselves to be reduced to a single philosophy or a single aesthetic theory ? ?
Isn't all art ambiguous ? ?
`` Not this '' , he said , and gestured toward the Madeleine .
The classical lines of the church which Napoleon thought of as a Temple of Glory , dominated all the scene where we sat .
The Boulevard De La Madeleine , the Boulevard Malesherbes , and the Rue Royale ran to it with graceful flattery , bearing tidings of the Age of Reason .
`` Not this .
This is clear .
This does not allow the mystery to invade us .
With classical art , all is settled .
But it is different at Chartres .
There is the unexplainable , and there art raises questions that it does not attempt to answer '' .
I asked about the battle between life and death in his plays .
Didi and Gogo hover on the edge of suicide ; ;
Hamm's world is death and Clov may or may not get out of it to join the living child outside .
Is this life-death question a part of the chaos ? ?
`` Yes .
If life and death did not both present themselves to us , there would be no inscrutability .
If there were only darkness , all would be clear .
It is because there is not only darkness but also light that our situation becomes inexplicable .
Take Augustine's doctrine of grace given and grace withheld : have you pondered the dramatic qualities in this theology ? ?
Two thieves are crucified with Christ , one saved and the other damned .
How can we make sense of this division ? ?
In classical drama , such problems do not arise .
The destiny of Racine's Phedre is sealed from the beginning : she will proceed into the dark .
As she goes , she herself will be illuminated .
At the beginning of the play she has partial illumination and at the end she has complete illumination , but there has been no question but that she moves toward the dark .
That is the play .
Within this notion clarity is possible , but for us who are neither Greek nor Jansenist there is not such clarity .
The question would also be removed if we believed in the contrary -- total salvation .
But where we have both dark and light we have also the inexplicable .
The key word in my plays is ' perhaps ' '' .
Given a theological lead , I asked what he thinks about those who find a religious significance to his plays .
`` Well , really there is none at all .
I have no religious feeling .
Once I had a religious emotion .
It was at my first Communion .
No more .
My mother was deeply religious .
So was my brother .
He knelt down at his bed as long as he could kneel .
My father had none .
The family was Protestant , but for me it was only irksome and I let it go .
My brother and mother got no value from their religion when they died .
At the moment of crisis it had no more depth than an old school tie .
Irish Catholicism is not attractive , but it is deeper .
When you pass a church on an Irish bus , all the hands flurry in the sign of the cross .
One day the dogs of Ireland will do that too and perhaps also the pigs '' .
But do the plays deal with the same facets of experience religion must also deal with ? ?
`` Yes , for they deal with distress .
Some people object to this in my writing .
At a party an English intellectual -- so-called -- asked me why I write always about distress .
As if it were perverse to do so ! !
He wanted to know if my father had beaten me or my mother had run away from home to give me an unhappy childhood .
I told him no , that I had had a very happy childhood .
Then he thought me more perverse than ever .
I left the party as soon as possible and got into a taxi .
On the glass partition between me and the driver were three signs : one asked for help for the blind , another help for orphans , and the third for relief for the war refugees .
One does not have to look for distress .
It is screaming at you even in the taxis of London '' .
Lunch was over , and we walked back to the hotel with the light and dark of Paris screaming at us .
The personal quality of Samuel Beckett is similar to qualities I had found in the plays .
He says nothing that compresses experience within a closed pattern .
`` Perhaps '' stands in place of commitment .
At the same time , he is plainly sympathetic , clearly friendly .
If there were only the mess , all would be clear ; ;
but there is also compassion .
As a Christian , I know I do not stand where Beckett stands , but I do see much of what he sees .
As a writer on the theater , I have paid close attention to the plays .
Harold Clurman is right to say that `` Waiting For Godot '' is a reflection ( he calls it a distorted reflection ) `` of the impasse and disarray of Europe's present politics , ethic , and common way of life '' .
Yet it is not only Europe the play refers to .
`` Waiting For Godot '' sells even better in America than in France .
The consciousness it mirrors may have come earlier to Europe than to America , but it is the consciousness that most `` mature '' societies arrive at when their successes in technological and economic systematization propel them into a time of examining the not-strictly-practical ends of culture .
America is now joining Europe in this `` mature '' phase of development .
Whether any of us remain in it long will depend on what happens as a result of the technological and economic revolutions now going on in the countries of Asia and Africa , and also of course on how long the cold war remains cold .