Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros: Are Rhino’s Absurdist Nazis?

 

rhinoEugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros has been deemed by many to be an example of Theatre of the Absurd.  It functions as Absurdist on many levels, but the work is not ‘absurd’ as we might normally think of the word.  The play employs many aspects of the Absurd, from surrealism, to pataphysics, to Dadaism, while weaving in some existentialist thought.  As such, it is not simply a play that relies on overt or random incongruity, but rather one that demonstrates a clear understanding of the purposes of these various isms. This play carefully crafts and constructs incongruity, drawing out the absurdity present in contemporary thought and politics.  The result is a work that attacks the employment of flawed or misunderstood logic and ideologies or philosophical view perspectives, like humanism, and the prejudices projected by people who fail to understand the limits of their ‘reasoning’.  The work, like Günter Grass’s Flood, is clearly a response to the corrupt ideologies that propelled WWII, but because the work employs rhinoceroses in place of the oppressed group, the work can be read from a number of contemporary and current perspectives, be it a race-based reading, an ecocritical reading, or a queer theory reading.  The language of the text allows any oppressed group to be projected in place of the surrealist rhinoceroses and maintain an effective reading that efficiently lampoons perverse political and ideological systems that facilitate oppression and prejudice.

 

ATTACK ON PHILOSOPHY

 

There is perhaps no person who influenced Western thought more than Aristotle, and I'm not sure that is something to be proud of.

There is perhaps no person who influenced Western thought more than Aristotle, and I’m not sure that is something to be proud of.

One of the primary targets of the play is logic, or rather, flawed logic.  Like many medieval texts, Rhinoceros relies on overt personifications of certain social conventions.  Just as a poem like Piers Plowman personifies a construct like the human conscience with a character named Conscience, and The Romance of the Rose personifies the construct of wealth with a characters named Wealth, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros personifies flawed logic with a character named The Logician.  The character is the epitome of the maxim: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.    For example, the Logician tries to demonstrate what a syllogism is: “The cat has four paws.  Isidore and Fricot both have four paws.  Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats” (18).  Like Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Lost, the Logician relies on false logic (though he does not seem to be as aware of it as does Milton’s Lucifer).  Had the premise been “Only cats have four paws”, then his conclusion would have been correct, but the Logician misinterprets the stated premise.  This is an Aristotelian principle, and one that has influenced deductive reasoning for centuries.  In fact, there may be no single person who has had a greater impact on Western thought than Aristotle, and Ionesco makes no bones about how that influence has served as a corrupting power in the West.  Ionesco demonstrates how useless logic can be when the Logician asserts that the Old Gentleman, whom he is talking to, is correct “logically”, but that “the contrary is also true” (19), illustrating that the application of logic neither concretely proves or disproves anything.  Another flaw syllogism present stats that all “cats die.  Socrates is dead.  Therefore Socrates is a cat” (19).  On a side note, Socrates is not a cat.  Again, the major premise is misinterpreted by the Logician, which creates a flawed conclusion.  When such a flawed conclusion is accepted as fact, the decisions made based on that ‘fact’ can be dangerous.

 

Eugène Ionesco

Eugène Ionesco

This danger is exemplified when the Logician states that “Fear is an irrational thing” and that it “must yield to reason” (10).  The issue at hand is that the reason employed may be as irrational as the fear.  For example, xenophobia or anti-Semitism, can inspire fear in others.  The ‘reason’ used to quell such fears has ranged from the ridiculous, to the despicable, to the morally reprehensible. Such fears are fueled by logic like that presented by the Logician when he states that there “are more dead people than living” and that “their numbers are increasing”, concluding that “living are getting rarer” (19).  The flaw is obvious: the dead don’t exist and the ‘living’ are at a great number now than ever in the course of human history.  Should somebody suggest in 21st century America that there are more illegal immigrants than ever, a xenophobic response may be inspired.   The per capita numbers, however, may not agree with such language, and so the increased fear is irrational.  The language, then, can be part of the problem.  In one instance the Logician states that his hypothetical cats, Fricot and Isidore, who had 8 feet, have two taken away.  He asks: “how many paws have Fricot and Isidore?”  The Old Gentleman responds with a question: “Separately or together” (20)?  The Logician failed to consider that the syntax of his sentence was unclear.  Such is the problem with the language of logic, and statistics.  Statisticians use phrases like ‘norm’, or ‘empirical’, which have social implications.  They find averages and determine who is above or below average.  The language they use lends authority to their observations and projects certain values onto their findings and the groups of people they may be reporting on.

 

rhino1One of the terms that creates such false authority is ‘majority’.  This term is employed by the protagonist of the play: Berenger.  In one scene, Berenger asserts that he is in the right because he and others like him, are “still the majority”, going onto say that “We must take advantage of that” (90).  This is what is commonly known as the ‘appeal to the majority’.  Just because the majority of Antebellum Southerners thought slavery was acceptable, doesn’t mean it is.  Likewise, the fact that most Germans supported Hitler’s Nazi regime doesn’t mean the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s were morally correct. Berenger also notes that they should take advantage of the fact they have the majority, which supports a ‘might is right’ attitude that inspired the maxim that democracy is three wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.  This appeal to the majority is one of the flawed forms of logic attacked in the play.  Another is the ‘appeal to the authority’.  Later in the play, when Berenger is trying to gather support for his view, he seeks to appeal to other characters who are seen as authorities, like the Logician.  He does this with the hopes that it will validate his views.  He acknowledges the flaw in this approach after he discovers that the authorities he sought to appeal had shifted perspectives.

 

EXISTENTIALISM

 

Jean Paul Sarte

Jean Paul Sarte

The play also puts flesh on existentialist arguments, namely those put forward by Jean Paul Sartre.  One character, appropriately named Jean, speaks of a party who Berenger notes he was not invited to: “True, I was not invited.  That honour was denied me.  But in any case, I can assure you, that even if I had been invited, I would not have gone” (8).  For Sartre, though, having an actual choice is integral, otherwise our values are the result of what it called ‘bad faith‘.  Without the choice there is no freedom and no formation of identity.  It is like the Sartre/coffee shop joke.  A waitress as Sartre what he would like and he says “Coffer with no cream.”  She replies: “We are out of cream today.  Would you prefer it with no milk instead?”  Some read the joke as the waitress being dimwitted, but the opposite is true.  She understands Sartre’s view on choice and allows him to make a choice in place of the one he is denied.  The Jean character tries to assert his identity in a place where is he without choice, contrary to Sartre’s notions, but still, his dialogue opens up the Sartrean (or as I prefer Sartistic, or even Sartastic) discourse on existentialism.

 

QUEER THEORY

 

Laurence Olivier, star of both Spartacus AND Rhinoceros.

Laurence Olivier, star of both Spartacus AND Rhinoceros.

Though existentialism is a key component to the play (the transformation from human to rhinoceros is a fundamentally existentialist transformations after all), it is the oppression of others that is the crux of the play.  One of the most interesting readings in this respect is a queer theory reading.  Much of the dialogue could be read for any oppressed group, such as when Jean says that the rhinos have “as much right to life as we have” (66), but when he asks if Berenger thinks his “way of life is superior” (67), it is clear that this is about more than simply one’s skin colour.  Berenger responds that humans “have [their] own moral standards which [he] consider incompatible with the standards of these animals” (67).  This is reinforced later when Dudard challenges Berenger’s assertion that wanting to be a rhino is evil.  He responds: “The evil!  That’s just a phrase!  Who knows what is evil and what is good?  It’s just a question of personal preference” (80).  This question of morality and what is evil is reminiscent of the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus where Marcus Licinius Crassus (played by Laurence Olivier, who also played Berenger in the first London production of Rhinoceros) asks Antoninus if the eating of snails or oysters can be considered immoral, ultimately stating that “taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals.”  This, of course, was a metaphor for amatorist, or rather, homosexual love, situating it as a matter of taste and not one of morals.  Some people prefer a certain colour or taste to others, and such preferences are not a question of morality.  There is a passage later in the play, spoken by Berenger, which further facilitates a queer theory reading.  When faced with the fact that he himself is now in the minority, rather than define himself by his physical appearance, he suggests to Daisy their “love is the only thing that’s real” and that nobody “has the right to stop [them] from being happy” (99).  Placing love above the physical, just as it was a key argument to companionate marriages, (present in tracts like Milton’s Doctrine on the Discipline of Divorce), is likewise a crucial argument for issues like marriage equality, and so the dialogue lends itself to such a reading from a contemporary perspective.  Later Daisy says of the rhinos: “They’re coming out” (92), which can be read as a link to the ‘coming out’ practice common in the gay community, though this may be an anachronistic reading.  Another seen has Daisy responding that the rhinos “look happy”, and that they “don’t look insane” (103).  This may seem trivial, but it is important to note that at the time homosexuality was treated as a mental illness (it was listed on the DSM), and the word gay is a synonym for happy.  Placing the happy in contrast of the insane.

 

 POST-COLONIALISM & RACE

 

There many similarities between Ionesco's Rhinoceros and Neill Blomkamp's Distrcit 9.

There many similarities between Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Neill Blomkamp‘s Distrcit 9.

The play, though, is not to be read exclusively through a queer theory lens, but also through a post-colonial lens that speaks to perceived race.  There are a number of instances where the characters try to rationalize their opposition to a group considered ‘other’.   Dudard says of Botard: “I don’t approve of the rhinoceroses myself… But Botard’s attitude was too passionate… and therefore over-simplified.  His stand seems to me entirely dictated by hatred of his superiors.  That’s where he gets his inferiority complex and his resentment.  What’s more he talks in clichés, and commonplace arguments leave me could” (83).  This demonstrates that many people who indulge in prejudices, often do so as a means of compensating for an inferiority complex and projecting their hatred of their own oppressors, but it also suggests that there are those who try to intellectualize their prejudices.  Botard himself tries to make himself seem unbiased by stating that the “fact that [he] despise[s] religion doesn’t mean he doesn’t] esteem if highly” (41), as if esteeming a group of people justifies despising them.  This is the kind of rationalization that takes place, and it eventually leads to extreme measures, like those proposed by Berenger, who suggests that the rhinos “be all rounded up in a big enclosure, and kept under strict supervision” (91).  This is an obvious allusions to instances like the Warsaw ghettos, which worked much like the relocation of people from District Six in Cape Town, South Africa, during apartheid, the inspiration for the film District 9.  The film, much like Rhinoceros, serves as an allegory against such segregation.  When the sporadic transformation from human to rhino increases, there are concerns that it is a medical epidemic, at which time the prejudicial attitudes quickly emerge.  Dudard states: “There’s still the epidemic theory.  It’s like influenza”, to which Berenger inquisitively postulates “what if it’s come from the colonies” (75)?  Here, like more contemporary instances of HIV/AIDS, the characters project the source onto another group, much like many people indulge in prejudicial stereotypes about homosexuals and Africans concerning HIV/AIDS.

 

Nyamata Memorial Site, Rwanda.

Nyamata Memorial Site, Rwanda.

Such prejudicial sentiments are strewn throughout the play, such as when Berenger suggests that the rhinos “all look alike, all alike” (94), but these sentiments are clearly critiqued by more thoughtful charaters.  Daisy tells Berenger that they have “no right to interfere in other people’s lives” (95).  This can be read through a queer theory lens, promoting autonomy in the bedroom, or through a post-colonial lens, suggesting that governments and regimes have no right to coerce peoples of other regions to adopt their values and moral codes. This shows up earlier in the piece as well when Jean tells Berenger that he doesn’t “keep trying to get [Berenger] to the doctor”, and the suggests that he leave “people to do as they please” (63).  Dudard likewise calls Berenger intolerant (83) and professes that he “consider[s] it silly to get worked up because a few people decide to change their skins” (80). One of the more interesting and progressive lines in the play is when Jean asserts to Berenger that he is “not a victim of prejudice like” (68) Berenger.  This line suggests that it is not the people who are prejudged by the bigot who are the victims, but the people who embrace and indulge in prejudicial thoughts that who are the real victims, perhaps because they lack humanity.  This lack of humanity is certainly present in Berenger as he fails to display empathy for others, postulating that it would have been better “if only it had happened somewhere else, in some other country, and we’d just read about it in the papers, one could discuss it quietly, examine the question from all points of view and come to an objective conclusion” (78).  This is reminiscent of the callousness that manifests itself in humanity.  Ionesco wrote this during the mid-20th century, but in the 90’s such sentiments became clear during the Rwandan genocide.  In the film, Hotel Rwanda (not to be confused with Hotel Transylvania), the character Jack Daglish, played by Joaquin Phoenix, suggests that people witnessing the massacre on the news in America will be content to simple concede that the actions are horrific and then go on eating their meals, while a more recent short film, demonstrates that the recent turbulence in Syria has been largely ignored.  It seems that the Ukraine will be the next region to witness such atrocities while the west remains contentedly ignorant to the pain going on.

 

 

ECOCRITICISM

 

Réne Descartes, enemy to the ecocritic and a man who could pass for a rhino given the size of his nose.

Réne Descartes, enemy to the ecocritic and a man who could pass for a rhino given the size of his nose.

The rhinos that serve as the signifier of the oppressed in the play are rooted in the natural realm, and so an ecocritical reading seem appropriate, especially since there are so many references to nature in the play.  When Berenger goes on about moral standards, Jean notes that morals are social constructs and that people “need to go beyond moral standards” (67).  When Berenger asks what Jeans would put in their place, Jean answers: “Nature”, going onto state that “Nature has its own laws” and that “Morality’s against Nature” (67).  Jeans suggests that humanity “must get back to primeval integrity” (67), which might repair the break between humanity and nature. It is when humanity has “demolished all” morality that it will “be better off”, which seems to suggest a Taoist approach of unlearning.  Other constructs are criticized in the play.  Botard, for instance, notes that “universities [produce] effete intellectuals with no practical knowledge of life” (43), suggesting a break between learning and natural knowledge.  Jean, who at one point embraces Descartian theory by telling Berenger that he does not exists because he does not think, shifts his view point by railing humanist: “Humanism is all washed up”, he shouts before tell Berenger that he is a “ridiculous old sentimentalist” (68).  Dudard argues that the shift to rhinoceroses is a natural one, but Berenger challenges this, asking Dudard if he “consider[s] all this nature”.  Dudard replies: “What could be more natural than a rhinoceros” (84)?  The transformation is even described as “a case of community spirit triumphing over… anarchic impulses” (89), suggesting that nature is triumphing over social constructs. And even Berenger embraces nature in his language when he uses ecological metaphor to describe the length of time in one conversation, defining something in “donkey’s years” (74).

 

SEMIOTICS

 

'Ferdinand de Saussure' is a signifier for the man who was the father of semiotics.

‘Ferdinand de Saussure’ is a signifier for the man who was the father of semiotics.

This idea of language is key to the text as Ionesco spends a large portion of the text exploring issues of semiotics.  At one point there is a question as to whether or not a rhino has made an appearance.  Botard insists that the event has not happen, despite the fact that Daisy witnessed the event.  Dudard’s argument demonstrates the potency of words.  He notes that it is “in the paper, in black and white” (39), as if the words existing in print are evidence of the event.  Here, Dudard is suggesting that the signified is made real by the signifier.  Still Botard insists that a rhino “has never been seen!  Except in school-book illustrations.  The rhinoceroses, Botards suggests, “are a flower of some washerwoman’s imagination” (44) and are an instance “collective psychosis” (45).  This is a surprisingly insightful passage considering it is coming from Botard, who seems to lack reasoning skills.  The image of a rhino in a book is, like the word rhino, is a signifier, and so is more in line with the word than the thing, since both are inherently the same.  The collective agreement to recognize the signifier as a representation of the signified can fairly be described as ‘collective psychosis’  because people collectively agree to recognize a signifier as something it is not.  A similar conversation goes on about doctors.  Jean bemoans that “Doctors invent illnesses that don’t exist” (62).  This is true in a sense.  Before a doctor names a disease, it does not exist in the human conscious.  It is only through language, after a doctor has named it and defined it that it truly exists.  Berenger argues that doctors do this “in good faith—just for the pleasure of looking after people” and “after they invent [the diseases] they cure them” (62).  This is especially true with psychological disorders.  When reading characters from the medieval era, for example, some critics project contemporary disorders onto the characters present.  These critics are often charged with being anachronistic in such instances because the terms did not exists at the time, and so the disorders likewise could not exists in the same way that they are seen today.  The dialogue in the play, though obviously flawed as it fails to recognize the existence of naturally occurring phenomena until it has been recognized and given a name by humanity, does demonstrate the authority given to language, showing how humanity often has a closer association with signifier than the signified.

 

THE SELF-MEDICATING ANTI-HERO

 

SNSMBerenger is not an ideal protagonist.  Indeed, much of the play seems to portray him as a highly flawed, problematic and frankly unlikable character.  In the first scene, though, he is perhaps at his most sympathetic, and it is here that Ionesco builds his motivation for embracing prejudicial tendencies. Berenger seems akin to the Arthur Seaton character from Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in that he is dissatisfied with his working life and feels the need to self-medicate with alcohol.  Berenger admits that he doesn’t “like the taste of alcohol”, but believes that if he doesn’t “drink, [then he’s] done for”. His reason for drinking is “not to be frightened” (17).  Begender states that he feels “out of place in life, among people, and so… take[s] to drink.  That calms [him] down and relaxes [him] so [he] can forget” (17).  This is clearly a person who is suffering from severe depression and feels disconnected from others.  He even projects his self-medicating approach onto others.  When one woman witnesses her cat get trampled, he prescribes a brandy for her (29).  By the end of the play, though, we see that Berenger’s need for self-medication is a manifestation of his own self-loathing, as he states that he “can’t stand [his] white hairy body” (107).  His embracement of prejudices, then, might be a projection of his own self-loathing.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION THAT HEAPS PRAISE ON THE WORK BEING DISCUSSED WHILE LINKING ALL THE THEMES TOGETHER

 

Eugène Ionesco

Eugène Ionesco

The plays is a complete, multilayered work that offers the reader many avenues to explore and speaks to the experiences of a multitude of peoples by employing a language that is at once precise and broad.  The dialogue is clever, and insightful, and exemplifies everything that an Absurdist text should aspire to fulfill.  It challenges through absurdity and incongruity, and shows the flaws of humanity’s reliance on language, flawed logic, and prejudices, challenging the reader to imagine better systems, even if it doesn’t have a template for such a system.  Whether read as an ecocritical work, a work of queer theory, existentialism, post-colonialism or race-based theory, this work is an excellent tool to generate such conversations, even if some of its conclusions seem obvious today.

 

If you’d like to read other reviews on Absurdist texts, feel free to check out my review of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter and The Room, and check out my review of Alfred Jerry’s Ubu Roi.  And follow me on Twitter to get updates on my latest posts @LiteraryRambler.

 

 

Words I thought I’d Look Up

 

Cirrhosis:  The result of advanced liver disease.

Perissodactyle:  An odd-toed ungulate, otherwise known as a mammal with hooves and an odd (as in uneven) number of toes.

Neurasthenia:  A mechanical weakness of the nerves, as opposed to ‘bad nerves’ related to psychological issues.

Pachyderm:  An obsolete taxonomic order of mammals that included rhinos, elephants and hippos.

Cardinal de Retz:  Was a church man (obviously), who was an instigator during the French civil wars of the 17th century.  The civil wars were known as affectionately the Fronde.

Mazarin:  Also a cardinal, but he was Italian, and he was a greedy bastard who collected jewels and such.  He was also involved in the Fronde, because, hey, who wasn’t back then?

The Duke of St. Simon:  Supporter of Louis XIII, unless this is a reference to his son who held the same title, in which case he was soldier, diplomat (the latter of which may be a euphemism of the former), and memoirist.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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