Both Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney display an acute understanding of human pathos, which is manifest in their works. This essay peruses Waiting for Godot by Beckett and the poems The Grauballe Man & Strange Fruit by Heaney to illustrate the social awareness contained in them. Social awareness (sometimes also referred to as social consciousness) is the collective consciousness shared by members of a society (which includes the author). To be socially aware is to be cognizant of ongoing issues and challenges facing different groups in a society. The literary works chosen for analysis here facilitate an understanding of the social awareness exhibited by the authors, as well as the authorial process and intent.
Written by Samuel Beckett originally in French in 1948, the translated English version was first enacted on stage in 1953. One of the masterpieces of the absurdist tradition, the play is infused with psychological, political and philosophical symbolism. The plot is outwardly quite simple, involving interactions between two friends Estragon and Vladimir as they both wait for another friend named Godot to arrive. Although Godot does not arrive during the course of the play, his anticipation sets up the context for the musings and conversations of Estragon and Vladimir. Beckett creatively exploits this open ended plot structure to ponder over important questions about the human condition. Given that it was published in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it asks deep and compelling questions of the state of human civilization and the nature of our species. (Minghella, 2006, p.41) It was also a period when Existentialism as a philosophical school was taking roots. As a reflection of this fact, the most ostensible symbolisms in the play pertain to the existentialist philosophical framework. Moreover, such utterances from the two lead characters as “to hold the terrible silence at bay”, “Nothing to be done”, “We are saved!”, etc offer profound interpretive scope for the reflective reader. (Beckett, 1956, p.77)
The assertion that Beckett brings social awareness to his work is further borne by its periodicity. The first quote above (“to hold the terrible silence at bay”) alludes to the acute existential crisis shadowing the period after the Second World War. Written as it was in the aftermath of the most devastating war in history, Beckett’s preoccupations with the purpose of human life and how best to go about fulfilling it are in tune with the concerns and sentiments of the time. In this sense, the play is full of symbolisms of ‘existence’ and its opposite state ‘death’ – a pattern found in the works of other post-war intellectuals such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. It is for this reason that notions such as ‘death’, ‘nothingness’ and momentary crises of human existence are all symbolically expressed, illustrating the author’s awareness of his society. The same observation could be extended to the set of Bog Poems in the collection Wintering Out by Seamus Heaney.
Further, as scholar William Haney astutely observes, the difference between awareness and its content, between consciousness and mind, can aid understand the importance of Beckett’s abandonment of ordinary dramatic characterizations based upon usual/traditional motives. For example, “Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot are nearly without attributes–aging tramps locked in a love/hate relationship and full of uncertainty about the time, place, and purpose of their existence. According to Beckett’s aesthetic strategy, they reveal that access to a quality-less pure awareness, or even to a flavor of non-separateness, involves letting go of personal and social identities.” (Haney, 2001, p.39) W.T. Stace has more to say about this kind of awareness which he calls ‘introverted mysticism’.
“Suppose that, after having got rid of all sensations, one should go on to exclude from consciousness all sensuous images, and then all abstract thoughts, reasoning processes, volitions, and other particular mental contents; what would there then be left of consciousness? There would be no mental content whatever but rather a complete emptiness, vacuum, void….what emerges is a state of pure consciousness–“pure” in the sense that it is not the consciousness of any empirical content. It has no content except itself. (Stace, as quoted by Haney, 2001, p.39)
This strain of Beckett’s thought, with its preoccupation with states of existence is also evident in Heaney’s works. In the latter’s works though, the focus is on one particular aspect of the human life cycle, namely that of death. The poem Grauballe Man – one of the Bog Poems– has a startling opening: “Who will say ‘corpse’?/ Who will say ‘corpse’/ to his vivid cast?/ Who will say ‘body’/ to his opaque repose?” (Heaney, as quoted in McLean, 2008, p.299) The poems of this genre delve into the bog landscapes of northwest Europe and Ireland and the uncannily preserved human corpses retrieved from their depths. The title of The Grauballe Man is taken from an archaeological find of an Iron Age man discovered in 1952 in the course of peat-cutting at Nebelgard Fen. It was a peat bog in the vicinity of the village of Grauballe in Jutland, Denmark. The mummified body is presently exhibited in the Moesgard Museum of Prehistory near Arhus. (McLean, 2008, p.299)
The Grauballe Man depicts a situation where recognition and disbelief coexist. The mummified ancient man meets the contemporary spectator with both identification and strangeness. The quality of otherness is marked by such features as “his darkened, leather-like appearance, his distorted features, the head partially flattened by the weight of peat over the intervening centuries”, etc. (McLean, 2008, p.299) Heaney artistically exploits these characteristics of the specimen and metamorphoses the vague human form via startling metaphor of its shapes and sizes. These lines from The Grauballe Man capture this essence: “As if he had been poured/ in tar, he lies/ on a pillow of turf/ and seems to weep/ the black river of himself….” (Heaney, as quoted in Purdy, 2002, p.93) Another of the Bog Poems of Heaney is the Strange Fruit. It is believed that many of the bodies retrieved from bog excavations of the last century were those offered up as human sacrifice. What’s astonishing about these bodies is their ability to
“abolish temporal distance, to make the past present. They are not skeletal remains; they have flesh on their bones and that flesh bears the marks of their living and their dying. They have hair and beard stubble and faces with expressions we think we recognize. They have stomachs that still contain the grains and seeds and plants they ate as their last meal. In a word, with their peculiar capacity to compress time, bog bodies are exemplary mnemotopes and speak of a life anchored in an everyday that was then but is also now. To an extraordinary degree, bog bodies allow us to see time.” (Purdy, 2002, p.93)
The genius of Heaney is in bringing this extraordinary equation of time to the verse form. Both the Strange Fruit and the Graubelle Man make a synchrony between memory and bogland as well as a connection to national consciousness. This is a clear marker of the social awareness of the poet, for since the resumption of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in 1969, poetry was confronted with new and urgent problems. For example,
“the unforgettable photographs of these bog victims blends with photographs of atrocities, past and present in the long rites of Irish political and religious struggles…The poetry of Seamus Heaney articulates an inner world, a private landscape, an intimate voice. Yet his particular situation as a Catholic Nationalist living in Belfast during the worst of the Troubles challenges his lyricism as precious and superfluous. Heaney clearly suffers the tension between his personal dedication to a reflective art and his public responsibility towards political action”. (Purdy, 2002, p.93)