“We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain.” (ix)
The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, 1951
The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, 1951
The above passage from Hannah Arendt’s preface to her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, points out the growing idealism of civilization to always present humanity as being always good as “vain.” Arendt claims it’s not enough to declare the “good in the past” as the roots to civilization and neglect the “bad” history and that by doing so the Western world found itself in two tragic world wars which decidedly transformed world mentality. One of the people whose writing was certainly influenced by the events that inspired Arendt was Samuel Beckett. His play Endgame is certainly seen to mirror this mentality in a very different fashion. This one act play revolving around a relationship between the two main characters, Hamm and Clov, goes nowhere more than back to the beginning. The way Endgame deals with the relationship of Hamm and Clov, and furthermore how they react and relate to their circumstances, mirrors Arendt’s message of ignorance of the past.
In the beginning of the play, Hamm and Clov discuss the time. Hamm begins by asking, “What time is it?” to which Clov responds very plainly, “The same as usual.” With a short intercourse regarding the view outside, which must appear quite bleak given the conversation, Hamm suddenly asks “Apart from that, how do you feel?” Clov, in a very poignant manner, responds with “I don’t complain.” This last statement by Clov relates to his reactions to the outside world which, in several interpretations, is either post-apocalyptic and barren or pre-civilization. Relating Endgame to Arendt’s passage possibly negates the pre-civilization interpretations, whereby focusing a relation to post-apocalyptic trends in theme. Having the time be “The same as usual,” as Clov describes, has both Hamm and Clov represent the people in society who disregard all of history and all possibilities for the future. Mirrored also in the statement “I don’t complain,” Clov is expressing a forced disinterest in the events that led to the post-apocalyptic world the pair find themselves in.
This world in Endgame is a culmination of events Arendt seems to predict in her passage. When she declares “or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain” Arendt must mean the dream of a post-apocalyptic world that humanity will survive and thrive from no matter what is ineffectual. Certainly such an aspiration, if groups in society indeed hoped for such an outcome in order to better humanity, would result in a collective mentality much like Hamm and Clov’s. Surface thoughts of the past buried beneath a lack of feelings about the circumstances that led to Endgame’s world result in a stagnation of progression; thus the cyclical nature of Endgame: the play of one act, never moving on and closing without resolution. Arendt should certainly have feared this outcome.
The audience of Endgame is introduced to Nagg with a sudden outcry for “Me pap!” repeated until the proper acknowledgment of the need and a donation to its source. “Me pap” is symbolic of several things in Endgame, the first of which is food. Nagg, who lives in a trashcan and who represents discarded waste in humanity, is calling for some source of nutrition that is easily consumed by the elderly. With Arendt’s influence on the interpretation, Nagg’s status as waste becomes symbolic of the disregarded past which society deems as “bad.” Therefore, the call for nutrition is suddenly a request for more history, more understanding, and an accurate retelling of events; but the placement of this need in a trashcan within the play indicates the detrimental course society is on. “Me pap” also indicates Nagg’s age. This is indicated with great force when Clov declares “If age but knew” upon Nagg’s exit from the scene. Clov is showing his greater comprehension for the events that transpired and his unwillingness to explain to the audience. This statement also shows how “age” in the symbolism of Nagg is the past being interpreted by the present, and Clov means that the present is being ignorant of the past by putting such a person in the trashcan. Nagg is obviously old because of his request for a pap, and if he is old he must know something of the past.
Nagg and Nell, the two elderly characters who live in the trashcans, represent the ability to see into the past. They reminisce several times in their short scene in the play. One of these times is about a lost tooth which Nagg claims “I had it yesterday” to which Nell mournfully laments “Ah yesterday!” These two are able to remember the past and freely discuss it like in the conversation about the wreck on their bicycle for two “in the Ardennes.” However important this ability is, Nagg and Nell are placed in the trashcans by society created by Hamm in his master role in the house. Hamm also attempts to ignore the two completely; and only engaging with Nagg later in the play out of necessity to quiet him. This interaction reflects Arendt’s second sentence: “The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition.” Hamm’s act of ignoring and disregarding Nagg and Nell’s intercourse about the past indicates the “subterranean stream” surfacing as a negligent feat in society. It also represents the younger generations and new politicians ignoring historians, and this deed is itself the downturn of dignity in “our tradition.”
Clov in Endgame seems to have the memories available from the past, but disregards them all the same out of a respect for his master. He is able to see how Hamm treats his parents in the trashcans, and is himself treated like a slave even with the predicament the four find themselves in. Clov’s very first statement is a short monologue where he says “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.” The obvious trope of sand in an hourglass forming the nonstop sequence of time until it overwhelms is the first impression this statement brings to mind. With Arendt’s affect on Clov’s line, the “Grain upon grain” which leads to “the impossible heap” represents the relentless course of civilization to the vain betterment of the past. Clov even expands on this premise when he says “All life long the same questions, the same answers”; whereby he’s clearly saying that humanity’s desire to answer the questions of the past with only the positive outlooks of events have brought about the same end. This line also hints at the cyclical nature of the play, and the relationships therein.
Furthermore, the post-apocalyptic interpretation of this text, paired with Arendt’s statement reveal a small society completely void of reflection of the past. This is the most atrocious outcome of what Arendt certainly must fear in the “anticipated oblivion.” Clov, whose power is undeniable since he serves a crippled, bleeding, and blind Hamm, must also know the unbelievable account by which they arrive in the house because he says, sadly, “No one that ever lived ever thought so crooked as we.” He knows that Hamm does not allow much memory to influence his daily life and thoughts. Hamm’s cares are about the world at present, whether something has changed from the immediate past to the present and how that will affect the immediate future. The only time Hamm allows a thought from the past to surface with any power is if the circumstance is consequently necessary. An instance of this is when Hamm demands that Clov “Go and get two bicycle-wheels.” Clov explains there are no more bicycles in the world, so therefore no bicycle wheels exist anymore. Hamm indulges in the memory of bicycles for mere moments until his thoughts move on a mere two lines later. Since Hamm is the authority figure in the house, and therefore the only society on Earth in a post-apocalyptic read of Endgame, his influence is what holds their society in stagnation. The fear of looking back into the past and seeing what might have created Hamm’s absolute authority is what Arendt’s preface is all about. Hamm is vain for neglecting all the realities of the past.
The final monologue given by Hamm at the end of the play contains the most relevant line to Arendt’s point. Hamm states, “Moments for nothing, now as always, time was never and time is over, reckoning closed and story ended.” Dissecting this immensely important line ties Endgame to Arendt’s preface. “Moments for nothing” carries the weight of history culminating in an apocalyptic world wrought with nothingness; and Hamm’s complete disregard for any historical significance in moments as representatives of memories is the action which instigates the nothingness they cannot leave. As Hamm progresses to “now as always,” he is clearly saying that since the actions of ignorance to the past are solid, which Arendt clearly says is “[usurping] the dignity of our tradition,” the present state of endlessness in nothingness will proceed until the end. He declares his own endgame; the point where the end is clear and the winner is known, but the steps must still be taken to that end regardless. The only end in sight for Hamm and the others is death without survival of humanity. Hamm continues this idea with “time is never and time is over,” but he also presents the idea that humanity is lost because he refuses to see history for its necessity. It may also be a hope for the renewal of possibility by negating the sense of time and declaring it over. The final portion of the phrase states “reckoning closed and story ended,” and this may also be Hamm’s vain attempt at overlooking the events that led to his circumstances. The reckoning brought the post-apocalyptic world to fruition, and that is over, as Hamm thinks it, and therefore that story is over as well. Previous civilization’s influence on his life cannot be since they do not exist anymore. Arendt explains this careless attitude and it’s folly in her opening sentence: “We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion.”
The heavily influential political climate in the early 1900’s shifted the collective mentality drastically. Arendt saw a need to accept the events of the past, both good and bad, and feed it into knowledge and education so humanity would not turn out like Beckett’s Endgame. We cannot submit to a need for happy thoughts and distinct morals that arrive from the ‘good’ historical interpretations. As many contemporary minds know, we learn from the past and strive to overcome the cyclical nature of certain circumstances by looking at the ‘bad’ in history. Hamm has forgotten this fact and believes simply that “Something is taking its course” and everything will be as it should. This fallacy is regrettable, and Arendt is pointing that out.