Posts Tagged ‘Eugene Ionesco’

On annihilation

February 1, 2020

A recent death in the family has inevitably had me reflecting on endings, disappearances, and what happens next. And while I have a faith and a spiritual life of sorts, I cannot think that there will be anything to come hereafter, in which I may have any connection to, knowledge or comprehension of this life which I have been enjoying for so long.

Many writers have imagined annihilation on a global scale, especially since 1945 and the first use of nuclear weapons. Think Walter Miller’s superb A Canticle For Leibowitz. Others have imagined environmental disaster, or disease on a pandemic scale. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is my favourite example here. But these writers envisage some survivor(s), rather than the complete disappearance of humanity. Rarely have writers contemplated or explored the idea of annihilation itself.

81m4LsvGXVL._AC_UL320_ML3_    71DcF-BqxUL._AC_UY218_ML3_    There are two literary works – very different from each other – which have chimed in with my thoughts. One is Eugene Ionesco’s masterpiece Le Roi Se Meurt (The King Dies) which I have mentioned a number of times. The king has to die, as must we all, and his time has come, yet he cannot accept the inevitable: he rages against it, even as his kingdom, in pathetic fallacy, disintegrates around him. His two queens assist him: the younger and more beautiful young one urging him to resist, supporting his denial (of the obvious) while the elder strives to get her husband to accept the inevitable. Death cannot be resisted. Amid his mental struggles, the king wants someone to teach him how to die, and is told – in a bleak sentence which has stayed with me for half a century, “Everyone is the first person to die!” For me, there is the profundity of great wisdom and great art in that bald sentence, so terrible when fully contemplated. And in this play, no afterlife is on offer.

The second text which spoke to me is a science fiction novel from the 1940s, Olaf Stapledon’s neglected Last And First Men. It’s a difficult, painful and strangely dull read at times, as well as an absolutely astonishing work of the imagination: Stapledon takes us on a whirlwind imagined history of humanity through (I think) eight very different incarnations of the human species over a period of several billion years, and its existence on several of our solar system’s planets. And as the years whizz by on the clocks of the Time Traveller’s craft in HG Wells’ novel up until the moment of the death of the sun, Stapledon’s journey takes us just as far into the future, but what shocks most is how quickly our own time, the people, places, countries and world we know are left behind in the mists of time. Gone and forgotten forever are all the marvels of our era, the Bachs and the Shakespeares and the Einsteins, gone are the cathedrals and the wonders of the world, ground to dust over millennia by time and geology: how long will the slightest traces of any of our world and our (feeble) achievements be recognisable? Shelley’s Ozymandias comes to mind: ‘Look on my works, ye might, and despair.’

The sense of annihilation is the total vanishing, the utter evanescence of anything connected with us on the scale of the universe, our utter insignificance. And when I contemplate that on an individual or personal level, my mind fails me, quite honestly. For how long will anyone have a memory of me, or my deeds? So then, I’m faced with the question: what is the point? And faced with that insignificance, all I can imagine is to try and live well and care for those close to me and dear to me, to enjoy myself, and do good where I can for as long as I’m able. I came across an old Arab proverb many years ago: “One day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one.” That speaks to my condition.

On death in literature

December 8, 2019

People die in literature all the time; their deaths are dwelt on for a while, and affect other characters. What occurs rather less often is deliberate and sustained consideration of the subject of death itself, perhaps viewed as too depressing to sustain an entire novel.

You can reflect on death in poetry: John Donne, for instance, does it masterfully in his Holy Sonnet Death Be Not Proud. Donne, Anglican clergyman and Dean of St Paul’s, knows that death is not the end, not ultimately something to be fearful of, because it leads to something far better – heaven and eternal life. He thunders at Death personified, though as a twenty-first century reader I’m not convinced, and I wonder at times how much his seventeenth century readers were.

Eugene Ionesco devotes an entire play to death; of all his works that I’m familiar with, Le Roi Se Meurt, which I had the good fortune to study at A Level (alongside King Lear, which was an interesting comparison) is the play I’ve found most powerful and affecting. The king has come to the end of his life and usefulness and so must die, but first he must accept this, and prepare himself for non-existence. Here, a king is an Everyman figure: powerful he may have been, but he cannot avoid the lot of every human, no matter how lowly. He rages and refuses, attempts to elude and evade; his young Queen supports him in this futility, holding out vain hope, while his other, older Queen must drag him kicking and screaming to face reality. It’s an absurdist drama and gains a great deal of its power from this, with the near-Brechtian alienation effect sharpening the focus on one man and his coming to terms with death. The single line (translated) “Everyone is the first person to die” had a profound effect on me at the age of 17, and I’ve never forgotten it: it gets to the core of the question so directly.

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych is jarring, disturbing: one day Ivan’s life is running normally, the next, he learns he has a fatal illness, which takes its course, and we observe his growing confusion and confusedness in himself as death approaches, as well as the attitudes of family, colleagues and neighbours, whose responses vary from initial concern to eventual boredom, because their lives are continuing normally and they are not (yet) faced with death in such a brutal way. And this is the way we react to knowledge of someone’s approaching end: we may be shocked or upset, and yet are reassured by the knowing that we will survive.

I first read Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars as a teenager, and have come back to it a good number of times; as you might expect, as I’ve grown older, my response to it has changed. I now see how he has attempted to remove death from human experience, not in the manner of the Swiftian Struldbruggs, but through technology: the computer that runs the city of Diaspar (go on, work out the almost-anagram) has perpetuated that city for a thousand million years whilst the rest of Earth has worn out and disappeared. Each citizen has their mental pattern, their brain and memories stored, and is brought back to life every thousand years or so, for another, fresh existence… you die and yet you don’t, being preserved in the computer’s memory banks. I quite like this idea, and could happily while away some hours planning my next existence.

Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe

September 22, 2019

81wJPxZyoYL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I only very recently came across a reference to this novel, and had to read it; I think I can honestly say it’s the most depressing and pessimistic novel I’ve ever read. It was worth reading, but be warned: you will be made fully to feel the utter pointlessness, meaninglessness and futility of human existence…

Initially, it struck me as Kafkaesque. Then existential angst shades rapidly into the idea of one’s life inevitably and irretrievably slipping away, devoid of purpose: vanity of vanities, all is vanity, says the preacher. Interestingly, this novel is much better known in France than Britain.

A young, newly trained officer is posted to a fort in the desert, at the edge of nowhere, where nothing ever happens. Pointless routine abounds, and it’s impossible to get away. Is our anti-hero tricked into staying there? Yes, by his superiors as well as his so-called friends, but he also tricks himself into staying, for it’s quiet, easy and he doesn’t have to think about anything… he stays in the rut, imagining that something will happen eventually, something exciting, some action that will bring meaning and significance to his existence. Except it doesn’t. There are false alarms, signs of ‘the enemy’ in the distance. Then the enemy spends fifteen years building a road to the fort, and then disappears.

Finally the prospect of real action arrives, and our hero is too old, too ill, and his brain too addled for him to be of any use: he will be medically evacuated before anything happens… which we don’t hear anything about, of course. The real enemy is death.

We imagine that we are in control of our own destinies (ha, ha). It doesn’t quite feel like Kafka, trapped by a senseless bureaucracy, though perhaps the end result is the same: it’s a twentieth-century, non-religious response to the existential question. The book is frightening, in the sense that, I imagine if one read it as a young person, you’d fear getting stuck like the protagonist; reading it as an older reader you fear that you have been trapped like him. Habit is comforting, things familiar are secure and living adventurously is hard, so let’s go with those easier options.

And you cannot go back: the world has moved on and left you behind; there is only distance and disappointment back there, so why bother? More suicidal than a Leonard Cohen song. There is the inevitability and terror of ageing, imperceptibly, and this awareness is even more chilling for the reader who can see this happening to the anti-hero, while he is only dimly and slightly uncomfortably aware. And eventually we begin to move into absurdist territory when history begins to repeat itself a generation later, like the circularity of an early Ionesco play. Another new officer arrives, to be greeted by our greying protagonist.

He dies, forgotten and unloved, in an inn in the middle of nowhere, unwanted and unmourned. Reader, it is a good novel, but read it at you peril.

Proud to be human

April 15, 2019

I regularly reflect on what it is that makes us humans different from other species – not necessarily superior, but different – and feel it is our capacity for reason, and our self-awareness. We have astonishingly complex brains, and when we use them sensibly, they are capable of incredible things; consciously we can hand our knowledge down through the generations, building on what has gone before. People have sought to know, to find out, to understand the workings of the world and the cosmos, and, because of our individual mortality and our awareness of this, have wondered about whether there is an ultimate cause or creator, and whether there is any other state of existence awaiting us after the end of this one that we know. It is possible that in our need for this reassurance, we have invented those very things… “Everyone is the first person to die,” the king is told in Ionesco’s masterpiece, Le Roi Se Meurt.

I can know of our human past and what we have achieved as a species – the good and the evil – because it has already happened and we have historical records of much of it; many of these achievements contribute to what I suppose is a sense of pride in our species: there have been great thinkers, scientists, inventors, writers, musicians… Our future is unknown because it hasn’t happened yet; some of it I will get to see in my remaining time, and an enormous amount of it I will not. And because I have an imagination, I know that there are things I would dearly like to see in my lifetime – a human landing on Mars, contact with other intelligences elsewhere in the universe, solutions to our problems (self-inflicted, I know) such as climate change; I wouldn’t mind a socialist utopia, either. On the other hand, I have no wish to live through war and ecological disaster, and sometimes fear for my descendants because of our lack of intelligence as a species.

There is a science fiction tour-de-force, written during the Second World War, I think, by Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men, in which he imagines the future of humanity into the incredibly far future, through a number of different incarnations, wrestling with enormous epochs of time – billions of years – as humanity moves to other planets, evolves new capacities, far outshines what we are currently achieving. And yet, there is the awareness that eventually we must die out. Various incarnations of humanity pass on, along with geological ages, and it’s with a pang that, quite near the beginning of the novel, our variant homo sapiens, First Man, and all our physical and intellectual achievements vanish as though they had never been… such a waste, it feels, in an unfeeling universe. And yet, surely, that is how it must be, however we comfort ourselves with other possibilities.

But one thing is for sure: life will outlive me. There is an Arabic saying I came across a few years ago which I love: one day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one. To me, that seems a thing to aspire to.

Ionesco: Macbett

February 12, 2018

51IYbJ5xszL._AC_US218_I’ve always liked the theatre of the absurd, ever since I had to study Ionesco for French A-level; my recent reflections on Macbeth sent me back to his version of the play, Macbett, which I hadn’t read for many years.

There are the moments where a pair of characters share and repeat identical or almost identical lines, pantomime-fashion, just as in some of his earliest plays like La Cantatrice Chauve, echoing each other; often the phrases repeated are platitudes or even nonsensical, contradictory. Elements of farce develop as an aftermath of the opening battle where in Shakespeare‘s version Macbeth and Banquo show great valour: war is portrayed here as insane, with lengthy catalogues of slaughters and millions of innocent deaths, and the two ‘heroes’ make identical speeches and claims, which further undermines them. Indeed the entire train of events is absurd, for Duncan is a coward to whom no perceptible respect is due, and he and his wife are caricatures, anyway. Everything is called into question when the women appear far braver than the men, and the king spouts rambling nonsense rather than making regal speeches…

In this play the witches appear with their prophecies in the middle of the play, and their encounter with Macbeth and Banquo is much lengthier and more serious: they spend considerable time persuading Macbett that he should move against Duncan. And Lady Duncan is actually one of the witches, physically seducing Macbett at the same time. Ionesco’s emphasis is clearly on the fact that wealth, sex and power are inseparably intertwined.

Although for me the play lacks the power of Le Roi Se Meurt, it does nevertheless work, particularly because it is a re-writing, a re-conception or re-imagining of an original we know well and are very familiar with. Thus, although there are most of the events and plots of Shakespeare’s play here, and the end results of them are very similar, the words are different, the focus is different, and the thought processes of the characters are different; it’s alienation in the true Brechtian sense that unsettles the audience. It’s very much a twentieth century play. And it ends, after the death of Macbett and Macol‘s coronation, with his rehearsing the speeches of Malcolm in that very tedious interlude in Act IV of Macbeth where he tests Macduff‘s loyalty – Ionesco has translated Shakespeare’s text word for word here – except that we have the eerie impression that here, Macol really means what he is saying…

So, definitely not a tragedy – a farce if anything – deliberately absurd, very entertaining although very tricky to stage, I think. And I came away from it with all sorts of comfortable Shakespearean preconceptions shaken and stirred.

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

Reading and enjoying French literature

August 31, 2015

I really enjoyed studying French literature at university, and the year in France that was part of my course enabled me to begin to understand the country, its culture and literature, as well as firming up my knowledge of and fluency in the language. Because I was studying two literatures (three, if I count American separately) I began to see links between the histories, cultures and literatures of nations and their influences on each other, and this has stood me in good stead all through my reading life, as I’ve branched out further.

French Renaissance literature, apart from the joys of Rabelais (in the original, I might add), was unremittingly tedious, and after the free-flow of Elizabethan and Jacobean blank verse, the rhymed alexandrine of French drama palled very quickly. Moliere I really liked, and I began to be clearer about how coded messages and criticism might be concealed in an author’s work when open criticism was more than frowned on, but actually punishable, and I rate my introduction to Voltaire as a major life-changing moment: French literature seemed more challenging, more revolutionary, at a time when this teenage student was susceptible to, if not yearning for, such influences.

Their nineteenth century novels spoke more to me that the English ones: Stendhal, Flaubert and above all Zola were real discoveries; the freshness of the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud was welcome. And the twentieth century had even more to offer: the political novels of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism, surrealism, so much more. I think my major discoveries during my year abroad were firstly, their school philosophy textbooks (why couldn’t we do this in England? I asked myself. Answer came there none.) and secondly the surreal writings of Boris Vian, which I still love today. Surrealism and the absurd…turning the world upside down. I’d met one of Ionesco‘s plays at A level, and found myself reading most of the rest. Here were writers I could see playing with, and doing experimental things with their language; I admired them in the same ways as I admired English writers who did such things.

Some of the magic of French literature is obviously the being able to read it in the original. This was an absolute eye-opener; it sounds like a statement of the obvious, but there was something special about realising I could speak the language, be taken for a local in the country, I could read its newspapers and books as if it were my own language. And in a sense it was, because I had mastered it, and if you, dear reader, have reached this stage in your knowledge of another tongue than your native one, you will understand the epiphany, perhaps. Then you realise at the same time, just how different France is, with its own history, regions, Paris-centredness, wars, conquests and revolutions, and also how the language gives you access to a wider world of literature from the entire Francophone world…

Ionesco: Le Roi Se Meurt

November 24, 2014

A review in the paper at the weekend of a revival of this play in English sent me back to it; the book I have I ‘forgot’ to return to school after I’d studied the play for French A level in 1972! It was my first introduction to the theatre of the absurd, and I suppose was one of the texts from which I began to learn and develop the skills of literary analysis and criticism which have played a major role in my life and work…

Coming back to this story of the reluctant death of a king who has always refused to come to terms with its inevitability is obviously very different, given that I’m rather closer to that possibility myself than I was way back in 1972. The metaphorical meanings were clearer, for a start: it’s the death of a king because everyone (Everyman?) is at the centre of his/her own universe, solipsistically: everything revolves around us, from our perspective, and no matter how significant we imagine we are, we must eventually let go of that importance, that permanence, and fade into insignificance. The king is aided and tormented by his two queens, one rather matter-of-fact, insistent on the necessity of what must happen, in a no-nonsense way, and the other representing attachment, to people and objects, all of which must be let go of… The interplay between acceptance and resistance is at the heart of the drama, as it surely is at the heart of the human condition, cruelly inevitable.

What attracted me to the play way back then – the absurdity which breaks through, which jars, which shocks us into new ways of seeing and responding – is just as powerful to me now. We create the meaning to our life if there is one, and there is another perspective from which it is absurd, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. ( Ionesco later wrote a version of the Scottish play, too). I wondered then, and felt that the play was a tragedy, no easy thing to write in the godless twentieth century, and I still think so. Perhaps there isn’t a so much of a sense of tragic waste, but there is a sense of loss at the end as everything gradually vanishes and collapses around the dying king.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the title, which is a sort of play on words which cannot really be translated into English – the rather banal ‘Exit The King‘ doesn’t do it justice. The point is that the verb ‘mourir’ – to die – in French is a normal verb, whereas Ionesco makes it a reflexive verb, one of those curiosities which drive English learners of foreign languages to distraction; it’s on the same level as other things that one does for oneself, like getting dressed, sitting down, cleaning one’s teeth, so to make the verb ‘to die’ a verb like those others, gives it an extra edge: to die in himself? for himself? to himself?

And, I have always found a great profundity in the line from the play (translated here) “Everyone is the first person to die.” Think about it.

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