Eugène Ionesco and the Defeatist Dilemma

“The whole history of the world has been governed by . . . nostalgias

Eugène Ionesco

and anxieties, which political action does no more than reflect and interpret, very imperfectly. No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death; it is the human condition that directs the social condition not vice versa.”

This in essence is the subjective theory of history; it is also the philosophy of the French playwright Eugène Ionesco.


Eugène Ionesco, who is of Rumanian origin, has in the last ten years become one of the leading dramatists of the French avant-garde. Like all such writers his plays were first acted in the tiny left-bank theatres in Paris. He has now acquired a world-wide reputation and his plays are being performed in many languages.


The constant theme of his plays (for example: Armedée. Victims of Duty, etc.) is the personal predicament of the individual in the modem world, expressed in a highly original and unusual style of dramatic writing. In an article on “ The Playwrights Roll ” (Observer, June 29th, 1958), from which the opening quotation is taken, he says: “What is called the ‘social’ plane (of reality) . . .  seems to me to be the most external, in other words, the most superficial.”


It is a characteristic of our times for many people to deny the efficacy of political action and to turn to the sad futility of attempting to solve the inner, personal problem; simply because heretofore, all political action has left us still with each his own personal predicament in an impersonal and anti-social world.


Ionesco says elsewhere in his article: “I believe that what separates us all from one another is simply society itself . . . This is what raises barriers between men, this is what creates misunderstanding.” And again: “To discover the fundamental problem common to all mankind, I must ask myself what my fundamental problem is, what my most ineradicable fear is. I am certain, then, to find the problems and fears of literally everyone.”


True, society does separate us one from another, but the question, why? is not asked. True, my problems are those of literally everyone, in other words, they are common problems, therefore may they not be social in origin? Society and human beings cannot be considered in abstraction, as separate entities, we have no existence apart from one another and the whole which constitutes society. Our individual condition is determined on all counts by our common (social) condition. Neither is there an eternal paradox whereby the nature of our existence should, or must be, the barrier to perfect communication and harmonious living. If this were true, it would mean that at no time and in no place have men lived without the problems Ionesco poses, and this we cannot countenance. Personal problems are only the manifestations on the individual plane of the social malaise; for all problems can be seen on analysis no matter what their nature, to stem from the wider circle of causality—society. To describe social reality as therefore merely “external” and “superficial,” is to assume à priori that we have an existence which is “extra-social” and in some way superior to the social. Obviously, Ionesco has something in mind as to what this might be and he describes it as “a wider, deeper society, that which is revealed by our common anxieties, our desires, our secret nostalgias.” It is not that these things are not real enough, or for that matter of vital importance, but the emphasis is misplaced; that in some way they are more real, more potent, than the social existence. (There are no realities which can be conceived as being more, or less, real than others; there are only factors of varying powers of determinancy within reality.) This is not to question that our emotions, or rather, say our subjective impulses, do not have their influence on the course of human history, or on life in general (that would be silly), men make their own history and emotions are part of our human composition, but to say that (see opening quotation) what Ionesco calls the human condition, the psychological totality, directs the social condition, is an untenable assumption. Who could possibly give a cogent, convincing explanation of human history by way of such an hypothesis? I cavil at the thought of even putting rhetorical questions on the subject; the result would be so ludicrous, that I can only assume Ionesco does not mean precisely what he says. Perhaps I am wrong in my interpretation of what he means by the human condition, perhaps it is our unique human consciousness; our ability to experience the subjective, to be aware of ourselves, to have powers of abstraction, to be able to plan ahead; but these things are in fact historically the result of the very social reality that to Ionesco is mere external superficiality, as well as being a necessary factor for the existence of society anyway and can only exist itself and have meaning, within the social context. It is important to realise also that each human emotion only becomes overt as a response, and thus never without a reason, and that reason can only emanate from the environment, which is to all intents and purposes—society. Therefore, if our subjective impulses give rise to any problems on the psychological plane, they must be ascribed in origin to the social one. Ionesco rightly says of the “saviours of the world ”; “the founders of religions”; “the moralists” and “the politicians,” that “they make a pretty poor job of it” Yet at the same time he wrongly lays the responsibility for the business of directing human affairs, upon the very people whom he denigrates; contentedly leaving the destiny of the human race in the hands of professional bunglers, thus absolving himself from any responsibility, either as an artist or (one must presume) as a human being for the whole lamentable situation; which being social in origin—the completely insane, inherently unstable organisation of human life—must be tackled on that level, for to put it bluntly: there is no other.


As stated earlier, the question why? as Ionesco rightly contends (though for the wrong reason), that society raises barriers between men was not asked. I do not intend to state at length an answer which should be patently obvious to any one who reads this journal, except to say that in this case, as in many others, if we try to understand human beings in isolation, we find that we have to invent causes to replace those we choose in our ignorance to ignore. In this case the nature of society.


The flagrant contradictions, the class structure, the thoroughly warped relationships and hollow values that characterise the very mode of our human existence, it is well understood can easily lead to Ionesco’s position.


The utter boredom, futility and terror of our world which is fast becoming more and more “the air-conditioned nightmare” (to use Henry Miller’s phrase) of Huxleyan prophecy; which throws people back on themselves. to seek inwardly for peace and security, to escape from the vast, infinite, impersonal, oppressive world beyond, over which they feel they have no power to control. Our social nature pines and withers, for it has nowhere to flourish, for which the penalty has to be paid in full. The case-books of the psychologists attest to this.


In “The Starting Point” an essay which has been prefaced to the first volume of his plays in English (published by John Calder), Ionesco says: “. . . the world oppresses, the universe is crushing me. A curtain, an impassable wall stands between me and the world, . . . the horizon closes in and the world becomes a stifling dungeon . . . I feel I am invaded by heavy forces, against which I can only fight a losing battle.”


It is this highly personal expression of the predicament of the individual, from which he has evolved his theory of Dramatic art. It is from this point of view that he has written his creed as a playwright.


As the “human condition” is to him more important than the “social” condition,” it follows that in Ionesco’s opinion those who write on the wider social aspect of life, commit a host of artistic fallacies, since: “such writers . . . offer nothing that one does not know already through books and political speeches.” On this account he cites Sartre, Osborne, Miller and Brecht.


It is in no way to condone the conclusions of the aforementioned writers (though we may find much to agree with) to defend their dramatic approach, for in their works we are always aware of the world outside the immediate action, so that what the characters say, do and experience, has meaning for us. They are engaged in living; and acting on their environment, not merely thumb-sucking their complexes in a vacuum.


If and when the development of a Socialist theatre is possible, giving voice to Socialist ideas, aspirations and criticism, it can only be through the medium of “social” theatre that this can be accomplished. Apart from this, the pernicious fallacies of Ionesco’s theatre concerning the nature of man and society are opposed to the whole Socialist philosophy, and it is on this score that I draw issue with him and make my criticism.


If, as Ionesco says: “. . .  every work of art is outside ideology,” we are reduced to a conception of art that takes no account of the artist, who as a creative individual, is himself created in turn by the living, vital forces of society which he transforms into artistic terms.


Ionesco is himself, no more and no less than his particular anathema Bertholt Brecht, a product of some aspect of Capitalism.


“Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” wrote T. S. Eliot, but when that reality is inimical to use, we tend, like Ionesco, to hope that by refusing to look at it, it will somehow cease to be; or perhaps—simply go away.


Man’s greatest need is man, that is why we are Socialists and go the Socialist way. “Fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death—but we may choose.


Ian Jones