Waiting to be seen: Beckett’s Tree and Object-Oriented Ontology

The tree haunts Beckett’s stage. It isn’t strong enough to hang from. It isn’t wide enough to hide behind. It isn’t distinct enough to be of any significance. It is either dead or alive. It has either four or five leaves. It is omnipresent in the shadows, but never embraced in the light of a mind. 
Objects are rarely present in our mind. They’re simply assumed and utilised. They fulfill a function, until they don’t. When they don’t, they are broken, and they become present in our mind. We grasp them. We think and theorise about them. When they are fixed, or no longer needed, they return into the shadows of our mind.
The universe is constituted by objects. All objects, or at least the concept of all objects, are equally real. An object can never be fully understood or exhausted by the relations it holds to other objects. 
The tree is an object. It is not grasped or fully present until it cannot be used for suicide, game-playing or marking the area. Once its insufficiency is realised, it returns to the shadows, and the background. The tree can not be grasped by those who lurk around it, or those who watch them lurking, but it is clearly a tree. It is waiting to be seen. 

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The Tree

The tree haunts Beckett’s stage. Its ambiguous, uncontoured presence lurks ominously (and ambiguously – “The tree has four or five leaves”) in the background. It remains the only constant object in the play; uniting the otherwise unspecified (“A country road. A tree.”) and featureless reality of the stage under its looming branches. Yet the tree is rarely present to the ghostly figures who creep in its environment, it is only gestured towards (and even then, briefly) in reference to its failures and its inability to provide meaning to the relentlessly repetitive lives of Beckett’s most famous pairing. At first, it is assaulted as perhaps an insufficient and useless meeting place (“What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?”), but then rapidly slips back into the omnipresent, yet ever passive, background of the play. It re-appears infrequently after its initial disappointing nature is discarded ; as a tool for suicide. Its assumed ability to relieve the pair of their excessively circular lives is shattered (“From a bough?…I wouldn’t trust it”) and it is grasped once again (or perhaps twice) as a failure. As quickly as it rises from its shadowy depths, it is cast back into the featureless void it has inhabited for much of the play. The tree is seemingly also insufficient for their game playing: “Decidedly this tree will not have been the slightest use to us.” It also is not grand enough in its physicality to provoke memory: “Was it not there yesterday? ” questions Estragon. However, it is once dragged back into their awareness with some degree of positivity; “Everything’s dead but the tree.” Yet even when recognised as the only living feature of their lifeless surroundings, it  is quickly forgotten once again. Beckett’s tree is thus only once recognised in its own right. For much of the play, it is simply an annoyance and a failure for its characters. But it remains constant and a never questioned feature of their world.

Heidegger

Martin Heidegger, working on the foundations of his teacher Edmund Husserl, speculated there are three forms of presence in our experiences. Something is present to us (present-at-hand”) when we are directly observing, investigating and looking at it If we focus on something as present-at-hand in our experience, we are concerned with its bare nature and its phenomenal character in our minds (how it appears to us). The first form of presence-at-hand is those things which appears in our conscious experience through sense, and we think (theorise) about. The second, and most important, form is presence is that of a broken tool: “which no longer functions invisibly but now intrudes on our awareness.” The third type is that of nature, as defined by natural sciences and scientific explanation.

It is this second form of presence which is most interesting, and vital. In most of our daily and mundane experiences, we are present and involved in a world of unquestioned tools: things which simply perform a function for us, but we never mentally grasp or think about.  Hammers are not grasped with the mind and reflected upon, they are simply used. When a hammer breaks and can no longer be used, this is when we grasp it and become aware of it. They enter our minds not as tools, forever hidden behind their function and useage, but as broken tools: it lies in front of us, and we ponder its nature and attempt to repair it. Once fixed, it slips away, unnoticed, into the shared world of assumed tools and functions, that are only gestured towards, and never grasped.

Harman

Harman’s project of ontology, utilising insights from both Husserl and Heidegger, quite simply put posits a few things: the universe (“the cosmos”) is constituted by objects, of which there is no hierarchy or primacy, and these objects are never fully exhausted by the relations they have with each other (“Objects withdraw from relation”). A coffee mug is an object in the  universe, it is an object just as much as an electron or Julian Cope is, and neither its relation to the table it sits on, the floor it shatters on, the water that washes it, or the human that drinks from it, can exhaust it (can grasp what it means to be a coffee mug.) Although his metaphysics is far richer than this, this simplified account (as he himself provides) is all that is necessary for my idea.

Waiting to be seen

Having just finished Harman’s work, The Quadruple object (my first introductory text to Object-oriented ontology beyond watching a number of lectures), I felt the desire to try and apply his ideas in my everyday experience, just to see if I thought there was much too them (or that I even understood them). Strangely the first time my mind hurried back to thinking of Harman’s ideas was while watching a performance of Waiting for Godot at school. Watching the two character’s minimal engagement with the tree, but noticing its everpresence on the stage, and its inability to fulfill their demands (or be fully described by them) reminded me of Harman’s descriptions of Heidegger’s broken tool, and to a lesser degree his theory of objects. I don’t intend to argue that Beckett’s tree in anyway is a symbolic gesture towards Heidegger’s broken tool, nor does it accurately represent Harman’s theory of objects (while writing this post, I quickly recognised a few things which would ensure it could not): however, as pure intellectual exercise and certainly as an interesting example for briefly explaining both ideas, I wanted to elaborate on the thoughts that briefly came to me.

In terms of Heidegger’s broken tool, I hope Beckett’s tree being a clear (yet probably inaccurate) example of a broken tool is already evident. The tree is never brought into the foreground of the character’s minds, nor those of the audience, until it cannot fulfill its imposed role as a tool: it cannot help them to commit suicide, it is a failure as a marking post and cannot hide Estragon. Only through these failures as a tool, is it actually directly acknowledged by the characters, and bought out of the shadows, where it was “silently performing its labor in subterranean concealment.” The tree its the central feature of the background and stage for the play, but it is never really grasped on its own terms, only in a negative relation to the will of those that wallow under it.

In reference to Harman’s theory of objects, the example of Beckett’s tree works to a lesser extent, but is still interesting. No relation between any object (in this case, either the audience or the characters) can fully exhaust the tree of its meaning. For the audience, it is left as an ambiguous symbol: perhaps of religious significance, perhaps one of juxtaposition and contrast, or perhaps one of the almost infinite range of readings possible. For the characters, it is even less understood: it may or not be a willow, its number of leaves is left unclear, and it may or may not even be alive. The tree is the most important non-human object on Beckett’s stage, but its being is left without complete description or reduction.


Phrases removed for being dreadful:

  1. its totality is never grasped by the characters through its multiplicitous  failures as a tool; it fluxes in between the dark subterranean background of their perception and its presence as insufficiency of tool-ness.
  2. The indefinability, instability and temporality of the tree make it a difficult symbol and object for either the characters or audience to pin down: yet its distinct and defined object-hood remains throughout. It is a permanent feature of the background, bought into light only occasionally, before slipping back into a field of experience constituting non-presence once again.
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