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’.