In the late fifties a new form of poetry was taking shape. These poems were of a personal nature and the more personal, the better. This poetry of unrestrained, autobiographical poetry was coined “confessional” by M.L. Rosenthal in 1959 (Bawer, 7). Sylvia Plath is one of the most widely known and widely celebrated confessional poets of the twentieth century. Read More

“In the Waiting Room” is a poem written by a girl reflecting on a past experience of waiting in the reception room of a dentist’s office, looking at a 1918 issue of National Geographic (noted for its articles on anthropology, nature, and culture) while her aunt is keeping a dentist appointment.

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.

It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.

From the opening stanza, Elizabeth paints a very ordinary picture and describes specifically where the poem is taking place – in the waiting room in Worcester, Massachusetts. Nothing so unusual about that. She then shifts the mood by describing it as winter, which is the season most associated with death or a state of sleeping. Darkness comes early and can also symbolize death or the subconscious.

We know the poem is about a young girl because she describes the other people waiting in the room as “grown-up people,” specifically notes that she can read, and later mentions that she will be seven in three days (three days can also represent resurrection). While the poem begins in an outward setting, it soon turns inward to Elizabeth’s own psyche.

My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.

As she is studying and not merely gazing at the pictures in the magazine, she describes a volcano, “black, and full of ashes.” This imagery resembles death and cremation but is  followed by a spilling over of “rivulets of fire” possibly symbolizing an awakening and overflowing of Elizabeth’s own emotions and thoughts.

Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
–“Long Pig,” the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.

The description of the picture of two famous explorers in proper civilized attire juxtaposed against a picture of a dead man slung on a pole causes a sense of confusion. How can one exist at the same time as the other? The strange pictures of pointy-headed babies, women with wired necks and “horrifying breasts” alarms Elizabeth. We can see her attempt to make sense of what she is seeing by comparing the wired neck to a light bulb which is something familiar. The double use of the word round illustrates just how intense the image is but could also symbolize the concept of eternity which is the equivalent of insanity.

I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t.  What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I find it interesting the contradiction Elizabeth shows when she writes she was “too shy to stop” reading the magazine implying her own timidity and then follows that with her declaration that her aunt is a foolish, timid woman when she hears her aunt cry out in pain. Elizabeth then has a moment of realizing it is also herself who cries out in pain (on the inside) and she and her aunt are one.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

She follows this train of thought by asking what makes her different from these grown-ups in the waiting room, the pointy-headed babies, the wired-necked women with long hanging breasts, and the dead man slung on the pole.

This is what one would refer to as an existentialist flippin crisis. Kind of heavy for a six-year-old. Her identity becomes untethered at this point as she is free floating or free-falling in the idea of humanity.

Before Elizabeth anchors herself back to the reality of the bright, hot, waiting room on a cold February day in the year 1918, she questions why she should be any of them, what makes her one of them, what makes her different, how has she come to even be there and what did any of it even mean?

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities–
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts–
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?

Then just like that she is “back in it.” She restates the town and state where she is, the weather and date, and the fact that the War is still on. She comes out of herself and into “reality” although her perception of reality must certainly have shifted.

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

I really enjoyed this poem immensely and the idea that it was from a child’s perspective made it even more affecting. The idea of the innocence of childhood being lost in the immensity of humanity and all that entails (think of the devastation of the war and the dead man slung on the pole) is even more profound because Elizabeth is a child.

 

 

 

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?

 

Sources

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.

Samuel Beckett’s novel, Watt, is a perfect example of postmodernist literature. From the unreliable narrator (an inmate at an insane asylum certainly qualifies) to the temporal shifts (the beginning of the story does not actually appear in chapter one), Beckett takes the reader on a strange often times incomprehensible postmodern journey. The post-modern characteristic that really makes an impact is Beckett’s use of magical realism – a method which fuses incredible, whimsical, or impossible scenarios into a narrative so that the abnormal seems normal. The scene in which this technique is illustrated beautifully is in part three in which the narrator, Sam, is wandering alone in his garden in the insane asylum until he is compelled towards the fence.

Sam and Watt once walked together in a mutual garden but eventually Watt is transferred and so walks in a different garden. Sam begins to make an account of meeting Watt after being separated, “Then one fine day, of unparalleled brightness and turbulence, I found my steps impelled, as though by some external agency, towards the fence.” From the beginning of his account, the reader is given a picture of incomparable and unusual brightness. Then, he is compelled by some unknown force to walk to the fence which he would “never have gone near…under any circumstances.” The garden and the strolling in the garden are both very real and reasonable things. However, intermixed with the unusual brightness and the great commotion or agitation, or perhaps irregular atmospheric motion, depending on which definition of turbulence is applied, as well as the unknown force compelling Sam’s trajectory and there is most definitely a sense of something magical afoot.

Sam inspects the wall and comes to the conclusion there is an adjoining garden and within the adjoining garden is Watt walking backwards toward Sam, “His progress was slow and devious, on account no doubt of his having no eyes in the back of his head, and painful too.”  Sam describes Watt as bumping into the trees, getting caught in brambles, briars, nettles, and thistles. It appears to be a struggle, and a painful one, for Watt to walk the distance of the garden because for an inexplicable reason he chooses to walk backwards. Can Watt be under some invisible compulsion as it seems Sam is?

When Watt finally reaches the fence, the fence where Sam is observing, Watt turns around to most likely walk backwards back the way he came. Sam is able to see his face and the image that is described inspires a mixture of feelings, “His face was bloody, his hands also, and the rest of his front, and thorns were in his scalp.” Sam remarks on the resemblance of Watt to a Bosh painting of Christ. At the moment the image of Christ comes to Sam, he seems to have an existentialist moment where he feels he is standing before a mirror in which his garden, the birds, his very self is being reflected so much so that he feels his face to make certain that he is not in fact the one with blood and thorns. It is a moment when Sam is unable to tell his reality from Watt’s, where the two magically, if only for a moment, become one.

In Watt fashion, he asks Sam (starting from the end of the sentence to the beginning) for a hanky to wipe away the blood which strikes at the compassionate chord in Sam. He astonishingly enough manages to find a large, irregular hole in his fence in which he can crawl to the opening between the two gardens. He is surprised to find the exact same hole in the fence to Watt’s garden and speculates wildly about raging bulls filled with carnal desires or relentless rain that might have made such a hole.

Watt is no longer visible but when Sam cries out to him he emerges from behind a tree with his pants on backwards. He proceeds to walk backwards to Sam until Sam can pull him through the hole so that they are both standing together in the area between the two gardens. Sam pulls out a cloth, ointment, a hand comb, and a cloth brush from his pocket. It is certainly absurd he would have these items going for a leisurely walk but there is also a sort of magic to it. Sam anoints Watt’s face and hands (like the face and hands of a crucified Christ) as if he were a prophet, set apart to do a task for God.

Then ensues a dance, or what might be considered a dance. With their hands on each other’s shoulders they move back and forth as if man were dancing with Christ and as Sam describes, “Then turning, as one man, we paced back the way we had come, I looking whither we were going, and he looking whence we were coming.” Though it is clear, on the surface, that one sanitarium inmate found another and perhaps they are both insane pacing back and forth in an embrace, the image the reader takes away is a magical moment in between two gardens (perhaps one is Eden and the other earth) where man and God are reconciled.

Though Beckett used many components of postmodernism such as absurdity, irony, and black humor, it is his use of magical realism in the garden scene between Sam and Watt that is the most beautiful and touching throughout the entire novel. It is also through this component of magical realism that Beckett is able to rejoice in the constantly shifting and fragmented world with its subjectivity. As Sam says it best, “To be together again, after so long, who love the sunny wind, the windy sun, in the sun, in the wind, that is perhaps something, perhaps something.”