The most intriguing and dangerous characteristic of postmodernism explored, specifically and to an uncanny degree in Watt, is the idea that truth is not objective as previously believed, but subjective. This idea of subjectivity in regards to truth, which plays out through the character of Watt, is not an original premise. Friedrich Nietzsche expounded the idea thirty years earlier in his book, Beyond Good and Evil. Watt mirrors the philosophy of Nietzsche, one in which man has indeed killed God and in the process truth. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the prophetic tone of it, “But just under the surface…lay a fatal, festering cultural sickness: modernity” (Soccio 570). Watt is a perfect example of Nietzsche’s prognosis of the modern sickness – death of meaning by postmodernism.
“WHAT really is this ‘Will to Truth’ in us…Granted that we want the truth: WHY NOT RATHER untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance? The problem of the value of truth presented itself before us—or was it we who presented ourselves before the problem? Which of us is the Oedipus here? Which the Sphinx…And could it be believed that it at last seems to us as if the problem had never been propounded before, as if we were the first to discern it, get a sight of it, and RISK RAISING it? For there is risk in raising it, perhaps there is no greater risk” (Nietzsche 3). As Nietzsche argues, there is a definite risk in destroying the concept of God and with it the concept of an objective truth. In a present day cultural sense, this loss of meaning due to subjectivity can be seen in the concept of marriage. No longer is marriage between a man and woman, but now it is between a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. Now marriage is no longer considered a life-long commitment to one person until “death do them part” but a life-long commitment until one person or the other is no longer committed for life and decides to remake the life-long commitment with a different person. This loss of meaning can also be found now in the subjective meaning of sex and gender. One does not need the DNA any longer to decide sex or gender. Science and one’s own will are the determining factor now.
The loss of meaning in such traditional institutions as marriage and natural, biological occurrences as sex can be related to the scene in Watt where he begins lamenting over a pot which is no longer a pot. “Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr. Knott’s pots, of one of Mr. Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot…For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all” (Beckett 81). When one reflects on what it means to be a man or a woman, one must certainly realize it has lost its exclusive meaning with hormone therapy and transgender operations. As it is with the idea of marriage. The more one reflects on marriage and its subjective meaning the more one realizes that it is not really marriage at all. “It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answered, with unexceptional adequacy, all the purposes, and preformed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot” (Beckett 81).
Nietzsche writes about those not renouncing objectivity, that they will “in the end always prefers a handful of “certainty” to a whole cartload of beautiful possibilities; there may even be puritanical fanatics of conscience, who prefer to put their last trust in a sure nothing, rather than in an uncertain something” (7). But it can be equally argued that when multiple meanings are given to one thing then it, in effect, loses all meaning. Therefore that cartload of beautiful possibilities is meaningless as is that “uncertain something.” Perhaps what lies beneath the argument of objectivity versus subjectivity is not truth but meaning. As Watt concludes, “And it was just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that so excruciated Watt. For if approximation had been less close, then Watt would have been less anguished. For then he would not have said, This is a pot, and yet not a pot, no, but then he would have said, This is something of which I do not know the name” (81).
In conclusion, perhaps one should ask, just what is the risk Nietzsche was referring to in rejecting objective truth and embracing subjectivity. What is the risk of trading in the handful of certainty for the cart full of beautiful possibilities? What is the risk sacrificing the true pot for one that resembles it but lacks meaning? If the story of Watt is taken into consideration, the story of his confusion, his pain, and his institutionalization, then the risk Nietzsche is referring to is insanity – a collective and individual insanity. Is it worth the risk?
Beckett, Samuel. Watt. NY: Grove Press. 1953. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. NY: Random House. 1966. Print.
Soccio, Douglas. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. 3rd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing. 1998. Print.