Notes and Counter Notes

Notes and Counter Notes


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



I have no other pictures of the world apart from those which express

evanescence and callousness, vanity and anger, emptiness, or hideousness useless hate.



Notes and Counter Notes

Writings on the Theatre

By Eugène Ionesco 



When I Write . . .

When I write I do not worry about whether I am being avant-garde or not, whether or not I am an avant-garde author. I try to say how the world appears to me, what it seems to me to be, as honestly as I can, without a thought for propaganda, with no intention of guiding the conscience of my contemporaries; within the limits of my subjectivity I try to be an objective witness.

As I am writing for the theatre I am only concerned with personifying and incarnating a sense of reality which is both comic and tragic. Putting the characters I imagine onto the stage–and for me they are real, as real as they are imaginary–is something that happens naturally or not at all.

If you want or do not want to be avant-garde before you start writing, if you deliberately choose or reject an avant-garde approach, you are, as a creative artist, putting the cart before the horse, you are evading the truth that lies within you and missing the point, you are acting in bad faith.

I am what I am, take it or leave it. Genuine self-examination is most successful when it helps you to be yourself. And it is by being completely oneself that one has the best chance of being other people too.

When I was a boy I used to live near Vaugirard Square. And I remember–how long ago now!–that ill-lit street one autumn or winter evening: my mother was holding me by the hand and I was frightened, as children often are; we were shopping for the evening meal.

Dark shapes were flitting along the pavements, people hurrying by: hallucinating ghostlike shadows. When memory brings back a picture of that street, when I think that almost all those people are now dead, everything does indeed seem to me to be shadow and evanescence. My head spins with anguish. Really, that is the world: a desert of fading shadows.

How can revolutions change anything at all? The tyrants are dead, but so are the masterminds who succeeded them. The world is something else too; I was still a child when, as soon as I arrived in my second country, I saw a fairly young man, tall and strong, beating and kicking an old man. Both of them are dead now too.

I have no other pictures of the world apart from those which express evanescence and callousness, vanity and anger, emptiness, or hideousness useless hate. Everything has merely confirmed what I had seen and understood in my childhood: futile and sordid fits of rage, cries suddenly blanketed by the silence, shadows swallowed up forever by the night. What else have I to say?

Obviously it’s not very original. It has been aid thousands of times. But a child had discovered it for himself, before he learned it from so many others, who therefore simply confirmed his childhood vision. It matters little to me whether this vision is or is not surrealist, naturalist, expressionist, decadent, romantic or socialist. It is enough for me to think of it as perfectly realistic, for reality is rooted in the unreal. Is it not true that we are going to die?

It will be said that this view of the world is petty bourgeois. Are children petits bourgeois so soon? Perhaps. I find this vision of the world in a great number of petits bourgeois throughout the centuries: in Solomon, that petit bourgeois king; in Buddha, that petit bourgeois prince; in those petits-bourgeois, Shakespeare and St. John of the Cross; and in a great many more petits-bourgeois, saints, peasants, townsfolk, philosophers, believers, atheists, etc. . . .

I notice too that this same age-old and enduring vision of life and death is also modern and contemporary: when we read Proust we can catch a great feeling for the uncertainty of existence, which permeates his world of love and memory, of phantoms decked with lace; in Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale do we not see an illustration of man destroyed by time, a time in which everything comes to nought, in which everything crumbles against the roar of revolution and a shifting background of societies overthrown and reconstructed and overthrown again?

And do we not become aware of almost the same thing in Brecht’s Mother Courage? This is a play attacking war, of course, but that is not its main theme: time erodes and kills; we are shown this in time of war, but this only makes it more violent and more blatant, the pace of destruction is quickened; fundamentally it is not about the destruction of man by war but rather the destruction of man by time, by the fact of living.

Is not the theme of many of Chekhov’s plays also the theme of evanescence? It is not principally the death agony of society that I see in The Cherry Orchard or The Three Sisters but rather, though one particular society, the destiny of all men and all societies.

In all these authors one can see diverse situations, various countries, different periods and conflicting ideologies, but all these particular situations are simply a series of happenings in time, which again and again show me one and the same situation, one eternal event in conditions that change, like the varied expression of one invariable thought.

I do not refute the possibility of a different attitude of mind; I am not opposed tot he hopes of Teilhard de Chardin’s disciples or those of the Marxists, but I think I can claim that a work of art must express one or the other of our fundamental attitudes, that it is nothing if it does not go beyond the ephemeral truths or obsessions of history, if its is held back by this or that fashion–whether it be symbolist, naturalist, surrealist or social realist–and fails to attain a universality that is positive and profound.

So the avant-garde is nothing but a topical historical expression of an event of timeless topicality (if I can put it thus), of a supra-historical reality. the importance of Beckett’s Endgame, for example, consists in the fact that it is closer to the Book of Job than to the plays of the boulevards or to the chansonniers. Across the ages and the ephemeral fashions of History this work has rediscovered a less ephemeral type-history, a primordial situation which all the rest follow.

What is called “avant-garde” is interesting only if it is a return to sources, if it rejoins a living tradition by cutting through a hidebound academic traditionalism that has been rejected.

To belong to one’s own time, all that is needed is a certain awareness, a sincerity that is blind and therefore clairvoyant: either one does belong (through one’s idiom), or one does not, and it happens almost instinctively. One has the impression too that the more one belongs to one’s age, the more one belongs to every age (once the crust of superficial contemporaneity has been broken).

Every genuine creative artist makes makes an effort to get rid of the relics and clichés of a worn-out idiom, in order to rediscover one that is simplified, reduced to essentials and renascent, capable of expressing realities old and new, topical and timeless, alive and permanent, both particular and universal.

The freshest and newest works of art can easily be recognized, they speak to every age. Yes, the leader I follow is King Solomon; and Job, that contemporary of Beckett.

(“In answer to an investigation,” Lettres françaises, April 1958)

He Who Dares Not to Hate Becomes a Traitor

In the Pasternak Affair, one terrible thing strikes me forcibly. Pasternak has been accused by the official writers of his country of being a renegade, a traitor, a bad patriot and a man filled with hatred. Why? Quite simply because he has had and expressed the feeling that the people confronting him, his adversaries, were after all human beings too, as human as their enemies and that, like the others, they had a right to pity, respect, understanding and even love. This is the way things are: when you love, you are accused of hating; when your heart is full of hate, you are congratulated because, they say, “you love.”

In fact, it seems nowadays that one is forbidden not to hate; all charity is banned. So the worst fault is to give way “to the temptation of goodness.”

I have never been able to look upon my adversary as an obscene reptile; if I could, I would feel that I was an obscene reptile hating another obscene reptile. Or perhaps I should say he runs no risk of turning into an obscene reptile unless he considers I am an obscene reptile. Each time I make some declaration or defend some point of view, I am tempted to believe that the opposing point of view is more justified or just as justified as my own.

I have not got a partisan mind. If there is one thing I detest it is partisan spirit: often to such an extent that in detesting hatred I become full of hatred myself, and start playing hatred’s game. Is it a weakness to say that everyone and no one is right? To welcome other people’s opinions more willingly or as willingly as one’s own?  Does it show some intellectual inferiority not to have a categorical and partial attitude? 

Not to restrict oneself to shibboleths and doctrines and passionately held beliefs that are quite rigid and predetermined, that totally justify one’s actions and one’s resentments, canalize one’s anger and give free rein to the will to kill? The savagery of revenge or “just” retribution is out of all proportion to its rational aims.

It seems to me that in our own time and at all times religions and ideologies are not and never have been anything but alibis, pretexts that mask the murderous will, the destructive instinct, the fundamental aggressiveness and the profound hatred that man employs against man; people have killed to protect Order and to oppose Order, to defend God and to attack God, for their country’s sake, to break up an Order that is evil, to free themselves from God, to throw off a foreign yoke, to liberate others, to punish the wicked for the sake of the race, to bring stability back to the world, for the sanity of the human race, for glory or because we all have to live and snatch our bread from the hands of others: above all people have tortured and massacred in the name of Love and Charity. 

In the name of social justice! The saviors of mankind have founded inquisitions, invented concentration camps, constructed crematory ovens, established tyrannies. The guardian of society commit murder: I even believe that the prisons appeared before the crimes.

I shall be saying nothing new if I declare that I am afraid of those who yearn for the salvation or the happiness of mankind. When I see a sanctimonious man, I take to my heels as if he were a criminal lunatic armed with a dagger. “We have to choose,” we shall be told nowadays.

“We have to choose the lesser evil  It is better not to go against history”: but which way is history going? I believe that this is a new deception, a new ideological justification for the same constant impulse to kill: for this way “one commits oneself,” and one has a more subtle reason for compromise or for joining this or that party of assassins. This is the latest hypocrisy in the most recent of mystifications. We have seen it at work: he who dares not to hate is outlawed by society: he becomes a traitor, a pariah.

And yet my play, The Killer, was written well before the Pasternak Affair, which in my view only confirms once more what I had tried to show in that work.

But are we not all moving toward death? Death is really the end, the goal of all existence. Death does not have to be buttressed by any ideology. To live is to die and to kill: every creature defends itself by killing, kills to live. In this hatred of man for man (who really needs a doctrine that allows him to kill with a clear conscience), in this inborn instinct for crime (political, patriotic, religious, etc.), is there not something like an underlying hatred of the very condition of man?

Do we perhaps feel in a confused sort of way, regardless of ideology, that we cannot help being, at one and the same time, both killer and killed, governor and governed, the instrument and the victim of all-conquering death? . . .

. . . And yet, and yet we are here. It could be there is some reason, which escapes our reason, for existence: that too is possible.

(Arts, March 3, 1959, Advance notice for The Killer)

Source: Notes and Counter Notes: Writings on the Theatre by Eugène Ionesco. New York: Grove Press, 1964.

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