The twin themes of twentieth century creativity are entropy and time.
Beckett's grand theme is entropy. In his works, the passage of time is confusing, indeterminate, and unreal, while the fact of the characters' ongoing, rapid decay is vivid and immediate. In the first act of Godot, the two tramps, Didi and Gogo, encounter two travelers, the wealthy Pozzo and his slave, Lucky. They are on their way to a market where it is Pozzo's intention to sell Lucky. Pozzo tells the two friends how much Lucky has decayed over the years: he can no longer dance. When Lucky issues his famous command, "Think, pig", he is embarrassed by the resulting stream of nonsense: Lucky can no longer think as well as he did.
The two visitors exit. The sun sets; the two tramps seek refuge in their desolate and blasted landscape where Gogo knows he will be attacked by strangers and beaten, as he is every night. The first act ends and Beckett's stage direction for Act II says, "The next day." But there is no inherent evidence, in the dialog itself, that only one night has passed. Didi and Gogo have no short term memory; they have no sense of time; they argue continually about whether they are in the same place, whether the blasted tree, which has now bloomed, is the same tree, whether the abandoned shoes are the same ones that Gogo left there just the night before.
Didi and Gogo are more or less the same as in act I: they complain about aches and pains, inability to urinate, etc., as they did before. But when Pozzo and Lucky show up again, they are vastly changed: Pozzo is blind, and Lucky is mute. One would more easily believe a stage direction which said, "Twenty years later." The tramps grill Pozzo about how much time has elapsed and he does not know, in fact he is angered: "One day I woke up, as blind as destiny... Don't question me. The blind have no notion of time."
And when the tramps will not stop marvelling at how much the other two have changed since yesterday:
You won't stop pestering me with your routines about time! Its ridiculous! When! When! One day, that should suffice for you, one day like any other he was mute, one day I went blind, one day we'll be deaf, one day we were born, one day we'll die, the same day, the same instant, isn't that good enough for you? They give birth astraddle a tomb, the sunlight glints for an instant, then its night all over again.
Similarly, we watch the decay of Winnie in Happy Days across an uncertain duration of time. The play's opening stage direction says, "Imbedded up to above her waist in exact center of mound, WINNIE. About fifty, well-preserved...."
At the beginning of Act II, Beckett does not repeat the surprising temporal specificity of Godot's stage direction:
"Scene as before. WINNIE imbedded up to neck, hat on head, eyes closed. Her head, which she can no longer turn, nor bow, nor raise, faces front motionless during act."
One of her first comments in the second act: "May one still speak of time?" It has been a long time since she has seen her senile husband, Willie, who crawled around the base of the mound in which she is embedded. She fears he is dead (she cannot move or turn her head to look for him) but continues to speak to him as ever. "Do you think the earth has lost its atmosphere, Willie?" She speaks of her own decay: "If the mind were to go....it won't of course....Not quite....Not mine.....Not now....No no.....It might be the eternal cold.....Everlasting perishing cold."
She is immobilized, in a contracting system in which the entropic process is almost done, all energy expended, the sun almost extinguished. "I say I used to think there was no difference between one fraction of a second and the next." The difference now is entropy. "I can do no more....Say no more....But I must say more....Problem here.....No, something must move, in the world, I can't any more.....A zephyr....A breath....What are those immortal lines?.... It might be the eternal dark....Black night without end." Beckett uses "immortal" and "eternal" in juxtaposition. Immortal means not subject to entropy. Eternal means limitless in time.
Willie shows up, and has become almost as mute as Lucky. In the first act, he responded to Winnie occasionally but now he utters only one syllable, her name.
Stephen Hawking might be a character in Beckett. Like Pozzo and Lucky, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is eating him one piece at a time. First he was fully functional. Then he contracted Lou Gehrig's disease. One day, like Lucky, he lost the ability to speak. Another day, he was hit by a car.
It is a remarkable experience watching Hawking in Errol Morris' documentary A Brief History of Time. The gnomish look, the wheelchair, the mechanical voice. Listening to him recite, in his computer voice, the onset of the disease, loss of his vocal chords, the car accident. Beckett might have dreamed Hawking.
Hawking is the Proust of physics: he too is in search of lost time. The time before disease and the wheelchair. I have said elsewhere that all creation, literature and science, springs from the same font. It is no coincidence that Hawking's book is a Brief History of Time. He is a scientist; all emotion is suppressed. But our choices are not random. In his chapter, The Arrow of Time, Hawking introduces the concept of "imaginary time":
Imaginary time is indistinguishable from directions on space. If one can go north, one can turn around and head south; equally, if one can go forward in imaginary time, one ought to be able to turn around and go backward.
Hawking's grand theme is time. Here is the pith of Hawking. Why, he asks, does "real" time, as opposed to imaginary, never seem to reverse itself? Nothing about the reversal of time (Proust's grand dream) offends the rules of physics. Nevertheless:
The explanation that is usually given as to why we don't see broken cups gathering themselves together off the floor and jumping back onto the table is that it is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics. This says that in any closed system disorder, or entropy, always increases with time.
"The arrow of time" is the phrase frequently used by physicists to express the idea that time only seems to move in one direction. Hawking says there are three arrows of time: the thermodynamic (from less entropy to more), the psychological (humans remember past but not future) and the cosmological (the direction of time in which the universe is expanding, not contracting.) But "the psychological arrow is determined by the thermodynamic arrow"; these two must point in the same direction. The cosmological arrow is separate, and will in fact reverse itself; there will come a time when the universe is contracting. But then conditions will no longer be appropriate for the existence of intelligent life-forms which can ask questions about the arrow of time.
The reason life will not be able to exist when the cosmological arrow reverses is that "all the stars will have burned out and the protons and neutrons in them will probably have decayed into light particles and radiation. The universe would be in a state of almost complete disorder. There would be no strong thermodynamic arrow of time."
And then we will be in Beckett's desert. Black night without end. "May one still speak of time?"
We uncritically think that entropy is an effect produced by time, the "absolute time" Hawking dismisses at the beginning of his chapter. Exploded by Einstein, "absolute time" is the fallacy which allows us to talk nonsense about the "time" that elapsed before the creation of the universe. Time began when space did. In the world of the physicists, time seems rather to be an illusion produced by entropy. We measure our lives not by absolute numbers but in the direction of increasing disorder.
Entropy and time bite each other's tails like Escher lizards.