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The Family Man

Present Past Past Present: A Personal Memoir

by Eugène Ionesco, translated by Helen R. Lane
Grove, 192 pp., $6.00

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 doesn’t exist.” Or we might call them the comedians of conformity, of néant, continually contradicting themselves, continually annihilating themselves. The props so awesomely cluttering his stage, the exploding boxes and cups and tables and chairs, are, naturally, far more palpable than the people themselves. The props are the Ionesco equivalent of conspicuous consumption, or the analogues of a corrosive, devouring will. From scene to scene, act to act, they fructify alarmingly. In Amédée or How to Get Rid of It, a corpse, presumably an old lover of Amédée’s wife, grows at an astonishing pace (is he really the Gross National Product?); the shoes alone double the size of the cowering Amédée and his bothersome spouse.

In The Future Is in Eggs, a wild, rather too monotonous corollary of Jack or The Submission, where the lovers cackle and coo as the curtain drops, a number of characters “dart ceaselessly to and fro.” They are “fetching and carrying baskets of eggs,” snapping at one another, or shouting slogans at one another: Ionesco’s family of man. In a little-known later work, Frenzy for Two, or More, hallucinatory images, “headless bodies and bodiless dolls’ heads,” hang in the air. At the end of both plays, dust drifts from the heavens. Vanitas vanitatum, saith the preacher….

Ionesco, of course, is hardly the first to have seen the wrecker’s ball swaying above us, then descending with a merciless thud. That is an old theme, as old as death, the skeleton garbed in black swinging a scythe. And indeed death, “that churl Death” of Shakespeare’s phrase, seems, as commentators often remark, the boon companion of his merry pranks. But Ionesco is, I believe, the first to theatrically grasp the awful energy, the clogging rhythms of the twentieth century as continual pratfalls, a whirling cul-de-sac.

Even his predecessors, all immeasurably greater than Ionesco himself—Flaubert (Bouvard et Pécuchet, Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues), Alfred Jarry (the Ubu series), Gertrude Stein (Last Operas and Plays)—never traveled as far or as obsessively as Ionesco has gone in search of the banal or catastrophic. The extravagant caricatures of heroes and hero worship in the works of Jarry, Flaubert and his hatred of provincial life,* the charades of Gertrude Stein (Ionesco, incidentally, has great Steinian fun with historical incongruity, presenting in Rhinoceros Cardinal de Retz and the Duc de Saint-Simon, among others, as contemporaries)—the styles and execrations of these writers have, it seems to me, more profoundly affected Ionesco and his writings than the fabled Assimil primer which, according to a twinkling Ionesco, prodigiously prompted the loony-tunes of The Bald Soprano and the other arias that followed.

But Flaubert, Jarry, and Stein are bachelor types, insulated artists par excellence, both temperamentally and in fact. Ionesco is a family man; his plays, whatever else they may be, are family plays. Once he even allowed (it is probably another of his cracks) that he thought of them merely as divertissements for his little daughter. How to account, then, for the plastic carnage, the gleeful disgust, the splenetic mixture of the inconsequential and the incantatory, the domestic terror at the heart of his work?

Certainly, in play after play, the plight of the little fellow, beneath the burlesque, becomes more and more apparent. Ionesco calls him Amédée or Choubert or Bérenger—to a degree, he is Ionesco himself. A bit of a dunce, a melancholy poet seeking a patch of blue, a dying king fearful of death, a misty-eyed buffoon or a befuddled husband, oppressed within and without. Somehow he knows that “people who hang on to their individuality always come to a bad end,” yet somehow he stands up to the herd. Increasingly he is the individual malgré lui, increasingly Ionesco’s ideal.

Still, above all else, the little fellow yearns to flee hearth and home, society and country. In one of Ionesco’s last plays, A Stroll in the Air, produced in Paris some years ago, the poet Bérenger finally sprouts wings. He takes to the stratosphere—at last, not only apart from man, or apart from wife and child, but actually above the melee. Alas, even in the heavens Bérenger’s heart follows him, for when he returns to earth Bérenger speaks of his angelic adventures always as abysses within abysses, “deserts of ice,” “deserts of fire”—the life down below. In Ionesco, it seems, you can only go home—again and again.

If we look at the playwright’s theoretical essays, Notes and Counter Notes, or his memoirs, Fragments of a Journal and the more recent Present Past Past Present, very earnest, very kinky works, we uncover, not unexpectedly, the face of a terribly dreamy, terribly touchy, terribly meandering intellectual. Again, not unexpectedly, how Ionesco hates intellectuals. Mostly he hates them because they are chameleons, the charmers of the Zeitgeist who take on the latest color, the latest message according to the mood of the day or the surrounding terrain. These, of course, are French intellectuals, a rare breed. Johnson thought the French had no common sense, no common manners, no common learning, and no common life. “Nothing but the two ends, Beggary and Nobility.” The intellectuals of France bored Doctor Johnson. Ionesco, I fear, has always found them unsettling. He seems, in Present Past Past Present, for instance, unable to record the name Sartre without cringing.

Do these slippery savants remind him of his father? The portrait Ionesco presents of his father is acrid and full of ashes; it is belittling, yet suffused with longing.

…we had a falling out because he was a rightist intellectual; today he would be a leftist intellectual. He was, in fact, one of the rare lawyers in Bucharest who was allowed to appear before the bar after the Communists came to power. My father was not a conscious opportunist; he believed in the powers that be. He respected the State. He believed in the State, no matter what it represented. I did not like authority, I detested the State, I didn’t believe in the State, no matter what it represented. As far as he was concerned, the minute a party took over it was right. This was how he came to be an Iron Guard, a Freemason democrat, and a Stalinist….

The father, then, was untrustworthy, thoroughly ungiving, and tyrannical, an authority figure who caused his son great suffering. In the end, the son has sympathy for the father. Ionesco, however, has no sympathy for a fellow intellectual “who is now a Communist after having been a Fascist”—no sympathy, that is, for those who are either the dupes of history or the hypocrites of history.

No sympathy, moreover, for history itself. History, for Ionesco, is “pure madness.” “One must tell oneself that history is always wrong, whereas it is generally believed that history is always right.” There seems to be always an exquisite purity to Ionesco’s remarks about history, similar to the purity of Camus turning his back on Algeria or elaborately distinguishing between the rebel and the revolutionary. Camus “thinks he is above history,” as Sartre rancorously remarked. For Ionesco, however, the engagement of Sartre is simple sophistry. “Every ideology is a mythology, a system of conventions. Marxism has been adopted because force has made it fashionable, because it allows hate.”

In Rhinoceros, he puts the following words in the mouth of Dudard, a prattling rationalist, a smarmy clerk supposedly modeled after Sartre. It appears to be a parody of Saint Genet, very slapdash parody, I’m afraid, but it has its moments.

Le mal! That’s just a phrase! Who knows what is evil and what is good? It’s just a question of personal preferences. You’re worried about your own skin—that’s the truth of the matter. But you’ll never become a rhinoceros, really you won’t…. You haven’t got the vocation!”

Vocation: good touch. Brecht, another bête noire, becomes, in The Killer, Mother Peep, Ionesco’s Mother Bloor. “Let’s all do the goose step,” the garrulous demagogue shouts to her flock. “We must all do the goose step. And everyone will be free to say if the goose step’s not well done!” These are crude animadversions, of course, self-congratulatory and severe. Sartre, to Ionesco’s mind, is forever one of those willful fellows who “murder to dissect,” just as Brecht is the despotism of socialism—now and for ages to come. Both, moreover, are didactics: the schoolmasters of the intelligentsia.

Ionesco’s favorite words are antagonisme, insolite, contradiction: it is the vocabulary of the gadfly, the farceur. What Ionesco “hates” are the pedants, the boors about us, those who know nothing whatever of man or art or religion, the psychoanalysts and anthropologists and social scientists, those who keep creating problems and then keep manufacturing solutions to the problems they create. They are the brothers of Ionesco’s doddering professor, jubilantly crying, before communing with the rhinoceroses rumbling through the town: “We must move with the times!

Conversely, what Ionesco “loves” is mystery, the mystery of death, the mystery of childhood. It is here that the sprightliness ends. Whenever Ionesco speaks of these subjects the tone becomes lyrical or elegiac. Often these matters meet tremulously in Ionesco’s memory. The memory of walking through the Luxembourg Gardens with his mother, the memory of watching the Grand Guignol with his sister and his mother; the wretched memory of his mother telling him, “at the age of four,” that “everyone must die.” Ionesco “cried with despair.” His mother looked at him, “smiling sadly.” At fifteen he came to the realization that nothing could keep from him the sight and presence of death. “It was behind everything.” Behind, we may assume, his ambivalent attitude toward women (“Being afraid of making women suffer, of persecuting them, I have allowed myself to be persecuted by them”), and behind, as well, his attachment to Pascal, whose shadow, it seems to me, falls so subtly over so much of his writing.

The infinite incomprehensibility of God, the infinite fear of the infinite spaces. Il faut s’abêtir: the great Pascal’s paradoxical injunction. In order not to be abandoned by God, one must abandon reason. The famous injunction, I’m sure, has always fascinated Ionesco. We see that especially in the last plays, A Stroll in the Air, Exit the King, Hunger and Thirst; and we see that even more in the journals. But the God of Pascal is not Ionesco’s God. In Ionesco, the gospels are reversed: the Word made Flesh becomes the Word made Dust. The mystery of death, the mystery of childhood—these are meaningful only as the play of the imagination, or the play of memory upon the imagination. Ionesco’s world is a closed one, a circular one. Still, the outer world is always there, and still, with or without God, Ionesco appears always vulnerable to it.

In Present Past Past Present we come across an extraordinary passage. It is the early Forties, Ionesco is thirty. The port installations at Singapore have been strafed, the oil wells of Java are burning, Europe is aflame. Then, as now, Ionesco has contempt for man and contempt for the world, but no contempt for the private man or the private world. Then, as now, he has contempt for the family and contempt for culture, but no contempt for the ideal of the family, the ideal of culture.

Indeed, the death of the family, the death of culture—these are always the awesome possibilities, the terrible phantoms threatening to drag us down to the ant heap. Presently they take the form of the barbarians at the front or the barbarians in the square. History, which so dismays Ionesco, history, with its abominations and bogus solemnity, history, in the early Forties, is breathing down Ionesco’s neck as he records the events of the war in his journal. He notes “that tens of thousands of Poles, Czechs, and Serbs have been massacred, that hundreds of thousands of German soldiers are dying.” And it seems to Ionesco that perhaps really even that is not quite enough, that perhaps it takes even more than that to sate his rage, his affliction:

May the last railway bridge come tumbling down, may the last locomotive in the world explode, may the last airplane fall, may the last bayonet be broken, may we walk on the ruins of all the laboratories and all the libraries of Germany, Russia, France, Italy, England, America; stuffed to the gullet with ruins….

A few sentences later he asks to be rid of his life. “God or suicide. It will never be spring again.”

Ionesco, we say, is a humorous writer, but his humor, I suspect, is rarely of the highest order. A number of the individual lines are funny, but frequently they are funny the way Burns and Allen are funny. I was born in New York, says George. Funny things happen in London, too, says Gracie. They could be the Martins or the Smiths of The Bald Soprano. Ionesco, we say, favors the individual: “Je me bats contre l’esprit bourgeois et les tyrannies politiques.” But his individualism simmers strangely, now a romantic individualism, now a conservative individualism, without, it seems to me, an understanding either of conservatism or romanticism.

Of course, there is the other and the grander Ionesco, the Ionesco of Flaubert and Jarry and Stein and Pascal. It is here that he has his power: the marvelous leaping or passing from one state or absurd condition to another; a devastatingly imaginative roulade: the rapid run of clichés; the sense of a world encompassing one à bâtons rompus; the mock profundity of a sudden fancy or a deliciously pessimistic scene. The Chairs, Jack, The Bald Soprano, The New Tenant: certainly these are successes, both artistically and theatrically, and likely to last, along with a few shining moments from Victims of Duty, The Lesson, and Exit the King.

Still, the more I study the plays, the more I read the journals, the more so much of Ionesco’s world becomes cold and gray and monotonous; the more one seems to be in the Arctic where one can make no distinction between sky and ocean, horizon and land, where, if you’re a pilot, you say it’s like flying through a bowl of milk. Beneath everything, beneath even the apocalyptic tremors, I sense a sentimental configuration, no less sentimental because shared by many: husband and wife and child as the universal condition, the buffeted husband or poet as the universal hero, and the mysteries of death and childhood as the universal presences enveloping all.

In Exit the King, we encounter Bérenger as le grand monarque. He has “made war one hundred and eighty times,” he has led his “armies into two thousand battles.” He has reigned for centuries and he is lord of the world. But darkness comes closer and closer, the court awaits his death. From the multitudinous dreams and memories and achievements pressing upon the dying Bérenger he plucks the most piercing of all: his cat.

I used to have a little ginger cat…. I had found him in a field, stolen from his mother, a real wildcat…. I fed him and stroked him and took him home and he grew into the gentlest of cats…. To him, other animals and cats were strange creatures he mistrusted or enemies he feared…. And yet one fine day he must have felt the urge to go out on his own. The neighbor’s big dog killed him. And there he was, like a toy cat, a twitching marionette with one eye gone and a paw torn off, yes, like a doll destroyed by a sadistic child.”

Can we doubt that, here and elsewhere, Ionesco is himself the king, the neighbor’s dog the world, and the cat his heart?

  1. *

    The syllogism sequence in Rhinoceros, the wan conversation of Jean and Bérenger accented against the ludicrous arguments of the Logician and the Old Gentleman, owes everything, or nearly everything, I think, to the matchless moments at the county fair in Madame Bovary, the rakish Rodolphe whispering sweet nothings into the ear of the palpitating Emma, while a bellowing auctioneer awards the palm to the best pig, the best cow, the best fumier….

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