Present Past, Past Present
A Personal Memoir by Eugene Ionesco Grove Press. 192 pp., $5.95
All genius has its unattractive side. The suicides of such men as Baudelaire and Hemingway were notorious. For other public men the close, personal scrutiny has come posthumously. A recent biography published a quarter century after Franklin Roosevelt's death focuses on his cruelty to Eleanor and--according to George Orwell--even Mohandas Gandhi was something less than a Mahatma. What is interesting is that so often with famous men the same inclinations that led to their public success also led to their personal failures.
We first read lonesco in the ninth grade. I particularly remember it because The Bald Soprano was the first piece of grown-up literature I ever got excited about. It is interesting that we should have gone beyond our pubescent skepticism to enthusiastically appreciate a play that strained even the breadth of adult tolerances. It certainly fit our attention spans much better than Dickens and, to be candid, we were not above its nihilism. But our liking for The Bald Soprano was not the product of our baser thirteen year old instincts. After a childhood of Dick and Jane and Landmark hero stories it was delightful to read lonesco. The nonsensical alliteration, the rapid non-sequitur of outrageous cliches and, most of all, the abandonment of oppressive logic was wonderful for our stunted Junior High School minds. It was our first taste of intellectual mirth.
Present Past Past Present is the opposite of mirth. lonesco takes everything so seriously there is no room left for humor, and lonesco is so devastated by his existence all he can do is groan. Subtitled "A Personal Memoir", this book is the sequel to his autobiographical first volume Fragments of a Journal. It starts with flashes from lonesco's youth that run from a few lines to a few pages and then becomes a mix of his impressions at the beginning of World War Two, his thoughts about Israel and French intellectuals. lonesco not only sees what is hypocritical, cruel and bad but he becomes obsessed by it. He attacks what others would not even think of questioning. lonesco is the first man I have ever heard accuse history of being wrong. It's a surprising idea and an insoluble problem. There is no way to repeal history whether it has been right or wrong, and even a liberal interpretation from the Supreme Court will not get around it. The question of history's morality is impossible enough to be absurd. Is the universe right or wrong? Can one morally approve of the law of gravity? Is life to be condoned? There is hardly an appropriate reply. The questions do better as jokes, perhaps as subjects for discussion in one, of lonesco's plays. But here he is, ethically offended by history and observed with its wrongness.
Perhaps one of the first and most important things we learn in life is the ability to shrug off that which is irremedial. On one extreme are the callous who can shrug off everything not in their game plan, and at the other extreme is Eugene lonesco, who seemingly can shrug off nothing at all. This quality is admirable as well as pathetic. Mass-murders, starvation, Marxists, Fascists and the followers of Sartre--I can gladly join lonesco in condemning them all. But his judgments become so obsessive and his attitude so hopeless that all he can end up doing is whimpering about the wrongness of history. Isn't this man absurd?
Ionesco makes no mention of his playwriting in Present Past Past Present. In several passages he uses his symbol of the rhinoceros for those insensitive conformists, the 'New Men', who are the ogres of Ionesco's imagination, but never does he refer to the play Rhinoceros which was his first commercial success. Except for a smattering of italicized comments sprinkled throughout the text Present Past was written before Ionesco wrote his first play. The Bald Soprano, at the age of thirty-seven. Ionesco writes of his youth in Rumania and Paris, his father's desertion of his mother, the horrors of World War Two--all his life before he embarked on his playwriting career at the end of the 1940's. The book is a document of Ionesco's psychological crisis at its climax. "Up to the age of thirty-five, one can look back at the valley that one has come from. But now I am going down the other side and the only valley that awaits me is the valley of death." He screams at the wrongness of history, at the horror of the present, and the hopelessness of the future, but is too strongly locked-in to his feeling of impotence to act in any direction. His words are symptoms of life crisis--rotting, death, debris, sadness, impotence, sterility. His notions are intellectually suicidal. How could I allow myself to reach the age of thirty-six, he asks.
Then there was a change. It will take another book to explain how it came about but the first hints of it come at the end of this one. On the last page of the book lonesco compares the world to a chessboard. The individual is "only a pawn on a chessboard. He has no value except in relation to the whole. The individual is thus said to be an illusion. He doesn't exist. He isn't anything." But lonesco will not tolerate this negation of individuality. He says that in the game he plays the part of the "madman" (the French chess term for what in English is the "bishop"). "The individual, I, the madman, am aware of my personality as a madman...It is an ideological mania these days to put the accent on the group. I for my part am perfectly able to place the emphasis on what is different, on what is not the others, even though it is with the others. I feel myself to be irreducible."
Soon after writing this declaration lonesco began what became his great life work. Present Past Past Present is the unattractive side of Ionesco's genius. His hate for the totalitarians of left and right, his loathing of fad and cliche, his nearly total despair, are monotonously gone into. Even his sentences are depressed. There is no humor and little hope. Perhaps the content of his plays is nearly as disillusioned. But in them his inability to make sense out of the world becomes scenes of brilliant nonsense. He turns the types of people he hates into grotesques and their cliches into jokes. And behind their despair is the mirth of a man doing just what he does best.