Present Past Past Present: A Personal Memoir
We all know Hegel’s famous saying, “When turning our gaze to the past, the first thing we observe is ruins.” That gaze, of course, is philosophic and Prussian. How many, though, would be perverse enough to observe clouds of dust settling not over the past, but over the present and the future? It took a Rumanian-born mal-content, a French-educated expatriate, a plump and soulful littérateur living and writing in Paris after the war to hit upon the thoroughly insulting idea that the true mise en scène of the contemporary world, the contemporary malaise, is rubble—in fact, bigger and better rubble day by day. Critics call these curious and rather vengeful works of Ionesco comedies—social or metaphysical comedies. Often they seem the horrendous whimsy of a hermit situated at the edges of Babylon.
The rubble of progress in The Killer and Rhinoceros, the rubble of language in Jack and The Bald Soprano and The Lesson, the rubble of gentility in The Chairs. Above all, at least in the earlier plays, the instant and abiding ruination of character—well, wherever we look. The dotty Smiths meeting the dotty Martins in that dowdy English living room with the dowdy English armchairs and English pipes. The four of them, later, tête-à-tête with the imperturbable Fire Chief: “Thanks to you, we have passed a truly Cartesian quarter of an hour…. Good luck and a good fire!”
Most of the people in a typical Ionesco play suffer, I suspect, from a sort of spiritual enuresis, they sit and chat in puddles of pointlessness. They are the beleaguered symbols of a sequestered class, the much abused, much burlesqued world of the bourgeois, a class Ionesco ruthlessly mocks and yet, in his cadaverous way, tenderly, strangely cares for too. These characters are ruminants of the moment, and the moment after, they have no past. The odd couple of The Chairs, one of Ionesco’s best plays, the bedraggled cuckoo birds in the mysterious tower surrounded by the shadowy waters (is it a lighthouse? are they, by chance, the last custodians of Western culture?), fluttering over imaginary guests and imaginary conversations, may seem to have a past, indeed to be nothing but the past, but the past for them, surely, is more apparent than real.
The old man, aged ninety-five, listening to the plaintive litany of the old lady, aged ninety-four: “You could have been chief Actor, chief Doctor, chief Journalist, chief King!” It sounds poignant, one of the playwright’s familiar catalogues of false hopes, false dreams. However, as we soon see, what interests them is merely the absurd possibilities of the present: “Peutêtre,” ponders the old lady, “you’ve ruined your career?”—that and the future, the long awaited arrival of the Orator, the triumphant emissary of the Word, who, as it turns out, is deaf and dumb.
Ionesco is famously, ferociously cruel, and yet, as I say, oddly ingratiating as well. His people are grotesques, generally faceless, frequently senseless, the readers of Paris Match or Life, for whom “personality…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.