Friday, December 2, 2016

We Have Met the Enemy: Ionesco's RHINOCEROS

Teju Cole's recent New York Times essay ("A Time for Refusal") on Eugène Ionesco's 1958 play Rhinoceros connects the play to our present (American) moment; in such a moment, everyone around us is turning monstrous while we, flawed creatures, aim to remain human—even as we grow more deeply uncertain as to why we bother and whether we might, after all, be wrong.

The play is a wonderful reminder of all the ways in which people yield to a movement—any movement. Though Ionesco's target is European fascism, it might just as well be any undertow from an innocuous fad to cultural despair. The plot follows a somewhat weak-spined character, made weaker by drink, who looks to others for some direction. Meanwhile, people are turning into rhinoceroses. Berenger, our protagonist, dines with a friend who sort of hates him; goes to an office full of anxious and angry people; and waits at home in the company of office-mate Daisy while the end approaches, Berenger and Daisy going in ten minutes through a lifetime's worth of relationship highs and lows.

One element that makes the play so compelling is the way Ionesco makes every character's reasoning seem, for at least a moment, reasonable. One might become a rhinoceros for purely passive reasons, the way some of us get a cold every year in the proper season. One might simply be curious as to what being a giant beast feels like. Perhaps one likes the company. There's my friend! My spouse! Maybe they're happier than I am! One hates to be on the outside. What's so great, after all, about being human? Have my relationships really panned out? No? Then why do we persist?

A more devious element is Ionesco's teasing apart the various ways we accommodate the madness of our world. If we can just finish lunch, we can address the rhino problem later. Another drink might get me through. Really, it's not so bad out on the street; one just has to watch where one is walking.

The two elements work together, the desire to continue with normalcy and the desire to yield to a new normalcy really being two sides of the same coin. The temperature rises in the pot, yet we both distract ourselves with other matters and opt to remain in the increasingly inhumane (or lobster-unfriendly) circumstances.

Our Trumpish times are not really much different from all our other times. Only, it does seem that the situation has been made more stark, the circumstances more dire, the sounds from the street—like trumpeting, thundering beasts—more inhumane. Some people keep reminding themselves that they are in the voting majority, as more voted against Trump than for him. But all those who didn't vote have also joined the noisy parade of giant land animals; passively, they've become part of the incoherent crowd. It could happen to any of us. Those of us suspicious of these times must remain, even in our ragged humanity, vigilant, making sure our skin isn't turning tough, checking our foreheads against the emergence of horns.

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