Eugen Ionesco - Interviews

UNDER THE QUESTION MARK: MAN If you were asked to portray yourself as you did in your books, diaries, or in Present Past, Past Present, how would you introduce yourself? Eugène IONESCO: It is very complicated. I don't know. I don't know who I am. I don't know what I'm doing here. I don't know where I come from, or where I'm going. I happened to fight for things I moderately believed in: political struggle. I even wrote more or less political plays, for freedom, against Evil, such as The Killer. I only believed moderately in what I'd been doing and writing, for the very trite reason that, as Jean Gabin put it, 'We're here only in transit.' With that, Jean Gabin is joining the greatest and profoundest philosophers and mystics. And to quote other actors too, I would mention Simone Signoret who said: 'With every lapsing day, I understand less and less.' In this, she also joins the skeptics, if not the pessimists. I believe that this means we all are in transit here, the world is nothing but sound and fury, but we keep going. I think that even political men are a prey to anxiety, and that they know too that everything is laughable and that in the end everything is useless. To quote another unpretentious thinker, I would remind you of Stalin's words to de Gaulle or Malraux, anyway, the story was told by Malraux: 'In the end, it is death that wins!' Which is unbelievable for a communist and a Marxist to say who, in principle, imagines that humankind has a future, and not just humankind, but the universe itself: a future, a sense… (Silence) …In the end, this is what happens: ideology no longer exists, even ideas no longer exist, and if you want to spot a few convinced Marxists you'll have to look for them in the West. In Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania they no longer exist, yet conduct themselves as if they did. We all see that the West is in confusion. It is confused because for one moment it believed in its ideas and values. It no longer does. Nor do the Soviets believe in their own values any more. But they possess this enormous cynicism and enormous vitality that determines them to keep doing what people have been doing for hundreds of years, for centuries and centuries on end: colonize, occupy, invade, conquer markets, territories. This vitality, this kind of vitality without real hope I used to have too, at my level. But with old age, I have lost it and I am constantly about to resign. However, I know too well that I won't resign, that I cannot resign, and that I shall go on and on till I die. What do you mean by 'resign'? Well, it means keeping silent. But I like to talk. I am dissatisfied with all I have done. I often have dreams with the same theme: the confrontation between me and my father. When I was a schoolboy, in high school, my father used to come to my room to check if I was doing my homework. He caught me reading, say, Dostoevsky, or maybe The Three Musketeers. He went mad, he checked my notebooks. They contained only beginnings of poems, caricatures. Well, I had a similar dream. I dreamed that my father was saying: 'You succeeded in life. You are famous. I am dead. But I heard people talk about you. Show me what you have done!" I open then a drawer and show him sheets I have just scribbled on, caricatures, yellowed papers, torn papers: nothing! I believe that everything I have done, I believe that everything the world has achieved means absolutely nothing. Then what was the role literature played so early in your life? I think there is nothing more interesting than concocting events and recounting them. There is nothing more delightful, and at the same time important, in life. But we throw into literature all sorts of things, ideological concerns, propaganda, etc. Thus, little by little, we no longer say gratuitous things.It is this very gratuitousness which is interesting. And I have made mistakes. The fundamental mistake I have made is this: instead of recounting inexistent things, I was telling stories about myself and defending certain points of view or ideas. As a result, I believe I failed in my literary adventure. It is too late to start it over again. Wishing to be anti-political, I turned to politics myself – as I said before – because being against politics also means politicizing. I believe that literature should help find man's place between this world and the netherworld. As a matter of fact this is what happens to all literary or artistic works – these are things I have already said, but here I am, I have to repeat myself: authors, writers are promoting ideologies, propaganda, but the great authors are the ones who, unwillingly, did something else, not propaganda, nor ideology. I always give Pirandello, who had his opinions about human psychology, as an example. Pirandello's psychological theories have been long outdated, ever since psychoanalysis and other psychologies of the abyss… However, his play… His plays remain outside any ideology. I have often given the example of Greek temples. The architect built a temple to shelter the faithful. But the faithful no longer exist, pagans no longer exist – Paganism is dead – so temples are no longer sanctuaries, just things the architect never intended to make. Therefore, what he made was a simple building. (…) What was I saying? Everything humanity achieved represents nothing. Yes. Excerpt from an interview by Pierre-André BOUTANG and Philippe SOLLERS, 1978

EXCUSE ME MADAM BUT IT SEEMS TO ME UNLESS I'M MISTAKEN THAT I'VE MET YOU SOMEWHERE BEFOREexcerpt [The dialogue which follows must be spoken in voices that are drawling, monotonous, a little singsong, without nuances.]Sanda Miller: What is your opinion of today's theater? Do you feel that it has changed radically since the '50s?Eugène Ionesco: I believe that the great moment for theater was between 1950 and 1970. This was the "theater of text." Now we have the "theater of spectacle." I think there's a lack of authors today, although there are quite a number of great theater people in other areas, such as Robert Wilson and Tadeusz Kantor. For the rest, we have rather killed the conventions of theater by disarticulating them. Now, we await what will follow, we await a restoration. I have the impression that this is an interim period, which will eventually sort itself out. This kind of interim occurs in every artistic field, especially in France. I don't know too much about what's happening in other countries, but here we are in a period of expectation, of pause.Such powerful events are happening in the world that this can seem neither the time nor the place to make art, yet art is really the only thing to be done right now. It is much more important to make art than politics. People who can't find faith should go back to art; it is a contemplation technique. I keep repeating what André Malraux used to say, that the 21st century will be religious or it won't be at all. With everything that threatens us from every side, I fear that it won't be at all. We are gnawed at by politics. Politics, the struggle between the major powers, the struggle of domination for domination… Ideologies no longer exist – they are only alibis. Not even the Russians believe in their alibi, Marxism, any longer, but they are such a powerful force they don't care. Artists have denounced politics, but not forcefully enough.SM: To the question "How did you become a playwright?" you have said that in 1948, when you wrote your first play, La cantatrice chauve [The bald soprano], your original ambition was to learn English. Is this really the whole truth?EI: Well, what started me was reading an English conversation manual. The remarks of the characters in the book – the Smiths, the Martins – were so banal as to be peculiar. And my plays, especially the early ones, express this peculiarity of the banal, which ultimately has an existential strangeness. The banal is so strange that it sometimes becomes comic, sometimes tragic. It was the commonplace that I found provocative in my early work. It left me is a state of wonder at life, which seemed to me unreal as far as human behavior went. We seemed absurd. But the "absurd" dates farther back, and my basic feeling was very much, "Why is there something rather than nothing?," to quote a German philosopher. My comic plays, such as La cantatrice chauve, show wonder at existence – at what people do, why they do it, why they go to so much effort. What does it all mean? What is it about? This was the first stage: wonder. The second question I asked was "Why is there evil rather than good?" The problem racked me. The world seemed first a mixture of the real and the unreal, but beyond that there was evil in it. I dealt with these problems in plays such as Tueur sans gages [published in English as The Killer, 1957],  Ce Formidable Bordel! [published in English as A Hell of a Mess, 1973], and L'Homme aux valises [Man with Bags, 1975]. To me, these are the two original feelings, the essential attitudes, that determined my writings.SM: You once said that you suffer physically when you write.EI: Yes, of course! Things in the world seem so monstrous that I agree with Emanuel Swedenborg, who said that we are already in hell. Hell is here on earth, or if not hell, at least purgatory. I consider the world we live in so dreadful that we cannot but suffer, we cannot but be anguished, and I ask myself, How can there be people who don't feel this? Perhaps they fall into a kind of routine of unconsciousness, of superficiality, but if you stop for an instant, to look at what's happening around you, not only today but since the beginning of the world, there is suffering. To me, this terribleness sometimes transmutes into humor, but a painful humor. Sometimes I have to say that the evil in the world is so great that it's funny.You know, I once remarked to a friend of mine that the world was truly so terrible that we might believe ourselves abandoned by divinity. In such a situation, I asked, what are we to do? "Laugh!" she said. "Laugh!" And I laughed, and asked her again, "Laugh, even if you are surrounded by corpses? Laugh among earthquakes, or other catastrophes?" She answered, "You have to laugh, laughter is our only defense." So what are we to do? Let's accept! Let's enter into the spirit of the divine joke, the tragicomic farce, let's accept God's game. It's not as if it won't end someday; it won't last forever, and eventually we'll see how it turns out. or maybe we won't.SM: I'd like to ask you about Rhinoceros [1958]. In its time the play has been interpreted in reference to both Nazism and Communism. Is "rhinoceritis," then, a political "disease"?EI: Of course the rhinoceroses are the Nazis, but they are also the Communists, the Stalinists, totalitarians in general. What I deplore and condemn above all about them is their conformity. I once asked some young Austrians and Germans what they thought about Rhinoceros. What did the play mean to these young people, who had not experienced Nazism directly? "Conformity," they answered. And that's what it's about: conformity. Conformity is yet another way of dying. Conformity is death, or the annihilation of all that is the human spirit. […] © ARTFORUM International, March 1987Reproduced with permission from Mrs. Sanda MillerTranslated from the French by Sanda Miller and Marie-Agathe Rodgers

by Pierre-André Boutang; Philippe Sollers; Sanda Miller