Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Language of the Absurd in Politics: A Lesson from Eugene Ionesco

This Blog Was Written by 
Dorian A. Pietraru

My greatest high school revelation was the discovery of Eugene Ionesco’ theatre. All of a sudden my life made sense. Ionesco’s absurdist view on society and human relationships helped me understand human nature, the fact that reason has also a dark, irrational component. I loved Ionesco’s dark humor, the metamorphoses of his characters, and his use of language that shows the gateway between reason and insanity. This was how teenage life was: a drift between extremes, rational choice embracing illogical decisions, and much more--a view over a fluid and unscrupulous society.
The world of Eugene Ionesco has come out in my mind every time I witness the present state of politics. I remember the first time when, with Ionesco in mind, I looked carefully at the language of last year’s American presidential debates. So many of us noticed the shift in language during the campaign. The candidates did not sound many times rational or respectful of their audience. The opponents harassed each other and the public. They repudiated conventions and norms. Much like teenagers, I thought, and much like Ionesco’s characters. 

I remember Sarah Palin's moment of endorsing candidate Donald Trump. From the beginning of the speech, Sarah Palin moved away from reason and arguments to emotions and multiple exclamations. Her theatrical performance asked the audience to participate fully. There’s an effusion of energy and emotions throughout the speech. The speaker’s enthusiasm for the cause elicits an immediate response from an approving audience.  The quote below will give you a glimpse of how rhetoric pales when subordinated to an emotional appeal:

"Well, and then, funny, ha ha, not funny, but now, what they’re doing is wailing, “well, Trump and his, uh, uh, uh, Trumpeters, they’re not conservative enough.” Oh my goodness gracious. What the heck would the establishment know about conservatism? Tell me, is this conservative? GOP majorities handing over a blank check to fund Obamacare and Planned Parenthood and illegal immigration that competes for your jobs, and turning safety nets into hammocks, and all these new Democrat voters that are going to be coming on over border as we keep the borders open, and bequeathing our children millions in new debt, and refusing to fight back for our solvency, and our sovereignty, even though that’s why we elected them and sent them as a majority to DC. No! If they’re not willing to do that, then how are they to tell us that we’re not conservative enough in order to be able to make these changes in America that we know need to be...Now they’re concerned about this ideological purity? Give me a break!” 

The speaker stresses a number of buzz words in her appeal to the audience: “conservatism”,  “establishment”, “illegal immigration”, “Obamacare”, “Planned Parenthood”, “sovereignty”. Each time the Sarah Palin underscores these concepts, her public reacts loudly. There is no rational attempt to create cause and effect relationships with these notions. The speech throws away the constraints of rhetoric and finds its strength in an emotional delivery. The conventional beginning of the presentation (“Thank you very much. It’s so great to be here in Iowa”) gives way almost immediately to a fragmented delivery of messages in multiple directions; Palin talks to Trump, who’s on the stage, to members of the audience, and to the press, that is located “back there”. Palin’s stage performance enhances her language use to a point where rationality is abandoned in favor of a feeling for belonging. It is us against them, patriots against traitors, a very dramatic dichotomy.   

It was indeed a Ionesco scene! Some background information about Eugene Ionesco, the classic of the absurd genre, is useful. Part of the French Avant-Garde theatre, Ionesco wrote about human condition trapped in a world that becomes unbearable. Normal communication becomes impossible when social alienation changes the world. As a response to vagaries of modernization and to the rise of hideous totalitarianism in Europe, Ionesco portrays individuals who see their own existence and history as irrelevant. Rules break into pieces, and dialogue (the backbone of theater) carries no constructive meaning at times. Twentieth Century is different in terms of history as well as in terms of artistic expression. Ionesco recognizes the importance of modernism in his work: None of us would have written as we do without surrealism and dadaism. By liberating the language, those movements paved the way for us.  
Rhinoceros is the play about the end of the world as we know it. When radical change happens, no one recognizes it, no one questions it. People accept the unacceptable (the presence of rhinoceros) as a normal, yet annoying, fact. No one tries to ask the question: “What happened? Where do these animals come from?” Nobody asks the questions you would consider in a real situation.
The next step is the identification with rhinoceros. They are “us”. Mrs. Boef recognizes her husband as one of the rhinoceros, and takes him home. Characters get accustomed with the new order, and the few protests are dissipated quickly.  
The metamorphosis becomes complete. We witness Jean, who turns into a rhinoceros, little by little, mainly through the power of his mind. A new doctrine comes out of this transformation. The absurd is creating its own rules: Jean says: “We've got to build our life on new foundations. We must get back to primeval integrity”. (Act II, Scene 2). And Jean again: “Humanism is all washed up.” Berenger, the one who seemed to be the outcast in the beginning of the pay, is the one to put up a fierce resistance to the new order: “Are you suggesting we replace our moral laws by the law of the jungle?” (Act II, Scene 2).
The relativity of viewpoint swallows characters one after another. People accept the abnormal situation. Dudard quotes from the Bible: “Judge not lest ye be judged” and “Who knows what is evil and what is good?” Characters find intellectual reasons to justify the absurd as an acceptable alternative.

We have seen dramatic changes in the way society conducts itself in the last years. The abnormal became norm in American politics. Absurd situations are legitimized and incorporated in rational discourses. Our president, Donald Trump, recognized the importance of transforming people into devotees, devoid of any critical perspective: "They say I have the most loyal people -- did you ever see that? -- where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters," Jenna Johnson, The Washington Post, January 23, 2016. Trump praises the complete transformation of the critical minds into unassertive supporters. The polarity between friends and enemies becomes fundamental. It is us against them: Americans vs. illegal immigrants; us vs. radical Muslims; us vs. ISIS; Trump vs. Washington establishment; Trump vs. “fake news media”. There is a strong and continuous effort to undermine the institutions of democracy and to “rhinocerize” them. Trump represents the hero of this effort, a kind of Berenger from the other side.   
In Rhinoceros, Berenger is the only character who does not accept the change. For him, there are still standards and sides. He sees the enemy to human condition, something that is hidden and relative to all the other characters.  He can still separate the good from the bad, the human from the inhuman. “We must attack the evil at the roots” and “The world is sick” (Act III, Scene 1). In the end, Berenger is left alone. Even Daisy, his love, is gone to join the herd. He sees the price he has to pay for being himself: “People who try to hang on to their individuality always come to a bad end”(Act III, Scene 1). Totalitarianism has created isolated individuals, unable to communicate. Some interpreters would say that this is just like the modern society, either capitalist or communist. There is no way out. Berenger vows to resist, but his solitude speaks about the failure of his determination. 

Who is Berenger, the hero of resistance, in today’s society? Is he represented by a few critical voices in the Congress? Is he the independent media, derided by Trump as “fake news”? Or are these dissenters swamped by a sea of tolerance and acceptance?  
Ionesco’s goal, according to many of his interpreters, was to create an artistic environment that describes how a political virus, which is Totalitarianism, is spreading inside a community and destroys the existing traditions. At first, becoming a Rhinoceros is unthinkable, an accident of nature. Little by little, the transformation is spreading and people starts to accept the inevitable and even doubt their own traditions and culture. There are relevant exceptions, of course. Berenger will not compromise and will laugh at his friends' desire to justify and rationalize the change. Ionesco's play is a grave artistic reminder that the totalitarian mind, either dressed as Communism or Fascism, can corrupt a democratic society if safeguards are not in place.
I want to look at this play in another way, different from the usual interpretation associated with Ionesco. In my view, the rhinoceros are the symbol of change and renewal. The old order can not hold the society in stable progress. There is a generational conflict. The established generation does not want to share the power with the young people who have different opinion about governance. The democratic process cannot bring people together at the table. There is no more room for negotiation. It is just ruthless competition for power.
The rhinoceros transition becomes an act of challenging the status quo. It is maybe a similar process that we witness in the political world. The established politicians are marginalized by ferocious minds who do not respect the rules of the political process. The rhinoceros are outsiders who play their last chance. They are desperate and motivated. They want to win and they win many times.
I also compare the rhinoceros to what I read about the French avant-garde theatre that Ionesco was an important part. The playwright and the writers of the absurd are the abnormal, the beast that threatens to destroy the carefully crafted post-war society, where all people play a role, but the rich and the powerful pull the strings. They are ignored and ridiculed in the beginning, when there are a few of them. Later on, when they reach fame and glory, the fans will try to reach them. They started as radicals and rebels, but they will also end on the pedestal as “sacred monsters”, glorified by their generation.
In my interpretation, the person who becomes a rhinoceros will not borrow actual physical rhinoceros characteristics. It will rather be a slight but progressive change in appearance, awareness, and mentality. In my mind this could be a metaphor representing the changes happening now in the world. I think our generation is very different from the 20th century. Everything is now quite different from what it was 10-20 years ago: the types of communication are different, the world is closer but split between the rich and poor. Democracy seems to shrink and give up, instead of expanding to other countries. Our planet is in turmoil and transition. Nothing remains the same, not even the weather. You cannot make sense of these changes using logic and rational presentations. You need the absurd.
Most interpreters will analyze Berenger as a hero, standing up to the totalitarian plague that destroys the traditional society. However, I see him more of a conservative. He doesn’t want to change and never will. He is afraid to take the challenge of a new world. He will not change things because he doesn't adapt and doesn't create a base of supporters. Berenger lives alone in the old world, as well as in the new world. His conservatism alienates him from his friends and co-workers. He is in fact the “rhinoceros”, the monster who does not see the new world and new ideas.
The standard interpretation of this play is that it is showing the degradation of meaning and communication in the modern society. This is the more universal meaning. The time specific elements that the play referred to is the French collaboration with the Nazi regime during World War 2. I have adopted a different general meaning, along the lines suggested by Joe Penhall in an article published in The Guardian. The critic said: “He (Ionesco) knew that the human race in general is illogical, often lacking sophistication, mostly badly educated, filled with bluster...” Ionesco's unruly characters attack the standards of society: logic, family, friendship, authority, place of work, social conventions, including rules of conversation. Until there is nothing left but the beast of totalitarian mind.   

Food for thought. What do you think?

Who are the political heroes of our times?
Can the theatre of the absurd offers us a way out of our political and cultural crisis?
What are the chances of democracy and progress in the United States?


The Work of Eugene Ionesco

Eugene Ionesco, The Rhinoceros and Other Plays, Translated by Derek Prouse, Grove Press, Inc, New York, 1960.

Studies and reviews

Penhall, Joe. “Ionesco's Rhinoceros Is as Relevant as Ever.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Oct. 2007,

Guppy, Interviewed by Shusha. “Eugene Ionesco, The Art of Theater No. 6.” The Paris Review, 12 June 2017,

Longo, Lisa. “The Politics of the Absurd.” The Huffington Post,, 24 Apr. 2016,

Blaine, Kyle. “So, Uh, Here's The Full Text Of Sarah Palin's Bizarre Trump Speech.” BuzzFeed,

Thompson, Mark. “From Trump to Brexit Rhetoric: How Today's Politicians Have Got Away with Words.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 Aug. 2016,

cbsnewswebextras. “Full Video: Sarah Palin Endorses Donald Trump.” YouTube, YouTube, 19 Jan. 2016,

Johnson, Jenna. “Donald Trump: They Say I Could ‘Shoot Somebody’ and Still Have Support.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 23 Jan. 2016,

Photo Credit: Dali With Rhinoceros, From Halsman/Dali Portfolio. Halsman, Philippe, 1956

No comments:

Post a Comment