LE NÉANT DANS LA PENSÉE CONTEMPORAINE (The Nothing in Contemporary Thought), ed. Norbert-Bertrand Barbe, Bès Editions, France, 2012. 529-533.
“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that
transcends it. But I know that I do not know that
meaning and that it is impossible just now to know it.“
In “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus defines the notion of absurdity as follows:
“A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity.”
In an era of wars and massacres, when death is most visible, according to Camus, “life” lost all its meaning. Hence man should not seek escape in suicide. It is not surprising that in the plays of The Theatre of the Absurd, characters, despite their hopelessness and desperateness, struggle and resist. This struggle, which might be delineated as the endeavor to exist, originates within the feeling of what Camus names Absurdity. Camus defines the feeling of absurdity as a constitution which requires further interpretation: what he defines is the feeling of Absurdity, not the absurdity or the absurd itself. Camus, in intending to define the term, is unable to reach the core meaning of the absurd since there doesn’t exist one.
On the other hand, Eugene Ionesco defines the term absurd as “that which is devoid of purpose… Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost: all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.” In his definition, Ionesco’s illustration of the absurd indicates a paradox, whenever he defines the term absurd by referring to the same notion of the absurd. The word, absurd lacks a proper signified. Therefore, despite all efforts of meaning assignment, the absurdity of the absurd lies within the condition that is devoid of meaning. In the remarks of Camus and Ionesco, the term “absurd” resists meaning assignment.
Eventually, one cannot firmly define the term “absurd”. Then how can one define the notion of the Theatre of the Absurd? For Martin Esslin, the inventor and the foremost theoretician of the term, “the Theatre of the Absurd is a part of the “anti-literary” movement, which has found its expression in abstract painting, with its rejection of “literary” elements in pictures; or in the “new novel” in France, with its reliance on the description of the objects and its rejection of empathy and anthropomorphism.” Esslin, similar to Camus and Ionesco, doesn’t assign particular meaning to the notion of the absurd. Instead, what he is able to do is to point out the relation between literature and abstract art of 40’s and 50’s Europe. One might argue that there can be an “abstract” painting, but not an “abstract” text of literature; since a literary text either conveys or calls for the act of concretization whenever it interacts with the reader. In Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”, “absurdity” of the literary text seems to be the equivalent of “abstractness” in art, for the ways in which both notions challenge the ongoing structures through devaluation of ideas or defying the structures of artistic and literary production in art and literature. Nonetheless, these two texts, in actuating this act, touch upon the issues of resistance; such that, a counter-performance arises within Beckett’s text, which invites the reader to read the text differently. Or, Ionesco’s text depicts a character resisting against the mysteriously attractive, jouissance-like harmony of the rhinoceroses. Resistance becomes the sole characteristic element in the “Literature of the Absurd”. Besides, resistance constitutes the absurd nature of these texts. Both the notion of absurd and the texts of the Theatre of the Absurd are embodied by resistances.
So far, as a conclusion we can say that the terms “absurd” and “absurdity” resists proper and direct definition and meaning assignment. These terms cannot be attached to certain referents and signifieds whatsoever. Secondly, in the texts which Martin Esslin calls as the texts of the Theatre of the Absurd, either the narration or the structure of the literary text possesses certain kinds of resistances, which constitutes the texts’ absurdity. Here, the term “resistance” needs exploration.
Resistance against concretization: According to Blanchot, “What most threatens reading is the reader’s reality, his personality, his immodesty, his stubborn insistence upon remaining himself in the face of what he reads – a man who knows in general how to read.” A man who knows how to read is a person who intends to concretize the text during the process of reading. Blanchot’s statement is a reaction against reader-response literary criticism which encourages the reader to fill in the blanks, to imagine what happens in a literary text and to visualize it. Contrarily, one can argue that the reader should be blind and ignorant; the reader is not obliged to fill in the blanks since the reading is accompanied by the blanks themselves. Whenever one fills in the blanks, that one consumes the text.
In this regard, it is possible to read Vladimir as the metaphorical manifestation of blind reader who resists concretization, as when asked to describe his surroundings, he replies: “It’s indescribable. It’s like nothing. There is nothing. There is a tree.” Vladimir resists concretization and realizes the self-ignorant reader who voluntarily blinds itself to the text.
In “Rhinoceros”, when Jean asks Berenger what he thought about the rhinoceros passed through the street, Berenger replies: “Well… Nothing… It made a lot of dust.” Despite all the ceaseless hurries, unresting arguments and alarming discussions regarding the existence of the rhinoceros, Berenger acts neutral. He only feels ashamed for he didn’t shave that morning for her beloved Daisy. Berenger cannot narrate the event properly, since he is not interested in the mystery of the rhinoceros as the others. Contrarily, Jean represents the Nietzschean Übermensch, who intends to find a logical explanation for every event happened around and whose life is organized and regulated by will-power.
In this regard, the scene when rhinoceros passes through the street represents a gap in the literary text. That gap is alien to the reader. It is fascinating. Its uncanny presence constitutes a blank in the narrative, which shouldn’t be filled in, so that the text could fulfill itself. However, the characters except Berenger handle the mission of concretization by focusing on the meaning of the rhinoceros. Since they cannot achieve a proper explanation despite the attempts of the Logician, they all turn into rhinoceroses. They do concretize the gap in the end, by dissolving their existences within that gap. They feel they have to concretize the text no matter what; they escape the meaninglessness of the blank in the text. The only way to escape that blank zone devoid of meaning is to turn into one.
The “gap” also contains political and social connotations. Ionesco mentions of “rhinocerosization” as follows:
“… I was amazed to witness the total conversion to fascism of everyone around me. It did not happen overnight of course; it was a gradual process. Little by little, everyone found sufficient reason to join the party in power. You would run into an old friend, and all of a sudden, under your very eyes, he would begin to change… I was to remain alone with my opinions.” “I have been present at mutations. I have seen people transformed beneath my eyes… They lost their personality and it was replaced by another. They became other.”
The process Ionesco mentions of is the “thingification” of the self; identification with the thing from which the person escapes. Berenger, like Ionesco, struggles with Nazification; hence he resists against concretization, while Berenger’s best friend Jean turns into a rhinoceros for in that cultural environment, “anyone who resists can survive only by being incorporated.” It is the rhinocerosization, bringing forth the issues of politics and literature together, asserting the rejection of the call from the text which expects from you to accept the text with its blanks. In that respect, Berenger, like Vladimir, represents the self-forgetting reader who resists concretization.
Resistance against remembering & thinking: In “Waiting for Godot”, Estragon and Pozzo represent the blind reader who constantly forget everything. Pozzo says, “I don’t remember having met anyone yesterday. But tomorrow I won’t remember having met anyone today. So don’t count on me to enlighten you.” Moreover, Godot’s messenger, Boy is also blind; since he tells Vladimir that he doesn’t recognize him although he visited him the day before. Furthermore, Vladimir’s and Estragon’s tendency for not to think becomes an issue of self-forgetting: “We are in no danger of thinking anymore….Thinking is not the worst….What is terrible is to have thought.” Since thinking is a process associated with remembering and acting rationally, the characters prefer not to think. Nevertheless they act; however as Ionesco suggests, their actions are devoid of purpose.
When Berenger tells Jean that he sometimes wonders if he exists, Jean replies; “you don’t exist my dear Berenger, because you don’t think. Start thinking then you will.” While Jean emphasizes the power of his will in a Nietzschean way, for Berenger, “life is a dream”. Berenger explains his attachment to alcohol as follows: “I’m conscious of my body all the time, as if it were made of lead, or as if I were carrying another man on my back. I can’t seem to get used to myself. I don’t even know if I am me. Then as soon as I take a drink, the lead slips away and I recognize myself, I become me again.” Berenger attains the essence of his existence by forgetting himself through reaching his unconscious. He always escapes from the acts of thinking and remembering. In other words, he resists against his consciousness, which dictates him to think and remember. In that manner, he enters in the realm of self-forgetfulness in order to realize his essential existence. Throughout the play, Berenger continues to be self-forgetting by refusing to remember even though every single human being – obsessively emphasizing logic and rationality, turns into rhinoceroses.
Resistance against language: In “Waiting for Godot”, Lucky utters a long speech which is totally nonsensical. Firstly, Lucky’s meaningless speech points at the notion of pure language which, for Benjamin, “no longer means or expresses anything.” Secondly, there exists the suffering of language. As Lucky kills the original language by expressing it without referring to a particular meaning, not only he frees the language from the illusion of reading and manifests the death of the language but also his expression gives an idea about the unreadibility of the text. Unreadibility of Beckett’s text implies that the signifier doesn’t correspond to a particular signified. Due to the disconnection of the reference and the referent, the loss of origin in the literary text takes place.
Another component of unreadibility and discontinuous narrative in Beckett’s text consists of silences. According to Esslin, Beckett devaluates the language in order “to communicate the incommunicable.” Beckett occasionally suspends the narration by silences, since he intends to communicate the incommunicable. The author lacks in possessing the text by illustrating it with proper discourses and rational explanations; hence he communicates the incommunicable by inviting the reader to take part within the text so that the text could realize its existence. Consequently, the text proves that it desires the reader.
Godot is incommunicable, and it can only be communicated by the devaluation of the language and the loss of origin. At this point, Beckett’s text invites the reader in order for his text to realize its existence. Eventually, “since the reader “makes” the book, the work, becomes a work beyond the man who produced it…” Beckett’s text contains resistance to language; which aims at communicating the incommunicable and seeking active participation of the reader within the realization of the literary text.
Resistance with language: In terms of the relation between resistance and language, Ionesco’s text differs from Beckett’s. Unlike Beckett, in producing his text Ionesco doesn’t devaluate the language. Instead of reconfiguring the language in a nonsensical way, Ionesco altogether abandons language; since at the end of the play, the only person uttering the language is Berenger. For Esslin, Ionesco, the persistent critique of Brecht, was “postulating a far more radical alienation effect as he argued that the theatre must work with the veritable shock tactics; reality itself, the consciousness of the spectator, his habitual apparatus of thought – language – must be overthrown, dislocated, turned inside out, so that he suddenly comes face to face with a new perception of reality.” While in Beckett’s text, the language gets distorted for the reason regarding a signifier no longer corresponding to a signified, in Ionesco’s text, the language itself is overthrown in order to achieve a total alienation effect. In Beckett’s text, there still exist signifiers no matter what they do refer to particular referents or not, whereas in Ionesco’s text, the author gets rid of every kind of signifier and signified, except for Berenger’s.
In the end of the play, all you can encounter is the roaring of the rhinos and there is no one left to make sense of Berenger’s utterances. Daisy, the last character to turn into a rhinoceros, tells Berenger: “…We must try to understand the way their minds work, and learn their language.” Berenger replies: “They haven’t got a language. Listen… Do you call that language?” Daisy objects and finally she turns into a rhinoceros which she considers to be like Gods. In the final scene of the play, Berenger utters a long triad, in which he asks himself: “What is my language? Am I talking French? Yes it must be French. I can call it French if I want, and nobody can say it isn’t – I’m the only one who speaks it.” Despite the fact that he is the only one to have a language, Berenger resists and decides not to capitulate. Berenger resists, by holding on to the only element which distinguishes him from the rest: the language. That language might be French or German, it doesn’t matter since the language transforms into the “pure” language. In Ionesco’s text, the language evolves within the narration; it becomes pure language with which Berenger resists against rhinoceroses. Thus Ionesco’s text constitutes a resistance with language.
Resistance and Lacanian jouissance: The unpredictability of jouissance is brought forward in Beckett’s text by the aid of the gaps as silences, actions of self ignorant characters or the inconsistencies of the narrative. Vladimir and Estragon’s act of waiting in the end of both scenes refers to the “compulsion to repeat” in which both characters have pleasure in the act of waiting. According to Barthes, a state of jouissance is created when one seeks out the reader “without knowing where he is.” Eventually, the two not-knowing characters are in a state of jouissance throughout the play. Besides, silences in the play point at the existence of jouissance; as Barthes suggests that “pleasure can be expressed in words, jouissance cannot.” Moreover, one can achieve jouissance only by the abrasions or the gaps in the text, similar to Beckett’s silences.
In Rhinoceros, the state of jouissance should be explored by means of the relations between the characters. Surely, there is a trace of jouissance, however not similar to the ways in which Beckett devaluates the language. As I discussed earlier, the existence of a rhinoceros represents a “gap” in a literary text. Furthermore, the metaphor of the rhinoceros has its political and social connotations regarding the spread of Nazism. If one considers that gap, the appearance of a rhino, as a possible space from which the state of jouissance might arise, it is inevitable to speculate that the ones like Jean, Dudard and Logician (symbols of utmost rationality) are in a state of jouissance in their rhino states. In his triad, Berenger admits that “their song is charming – a bit raucous perhaps, but it does have a charm!” Berenger is in envy of their state of jouissance. Previously, as opposed to Daisy who claims that “they are singing”, Berenger objects: “They are roaring.” Daisy is fascinated with the singing of rhinoceroses and they remind her of Gods. In an oceanic feeling which Daisy cannot resist, she turns into a rhinoceros.
On the other hand, there is a very crucial point to be underscored about Berenger’s transformation. Irresponsible and unconscious about himself and his surroundings in the beginning of the play, Berenger develops a more conscious and curious approach through the end; especially visible during his dialogue with Dudard. He says to Dudard: “Yes, but for a man to turn into a rhinoceros is abnormal beyond question.” Moreover, Berenger begins to think and argue about the speculations raised by Logician regarding the species of the rhinoceroses. Berenger is in favor of “attacking the evil at the roots” while Dudard disagrees and says: “Who knows what is evil and what is good? It is just a question of personal preferences.” In the beginning of the play, the ones like Jean, Logician and Dudard were interested in “analyzing” the phenomenon of rhinoceroses by emphasizing their distinct attributes compared to those creatures. They were sure of their humanness and they intended to construct rhinoceroses as the others. As evident in his statement, Dudard performs a relativistic approach through the end of the play, when the numbers of rhinos increase rapidly. As mentioned earlier, Dudard is about the thingify himself, to get incorporated; since he cannot resist the call from the “gap” constituted by the existence of rhinos. In the meantime, Berenger becomes more aware of himself and his humanness; he is no longer self-forgetting individual. When Berenger thinks about his past relations with his friends who turned into rhinoceroses, Daisy reacts: “…There is no point in reproaching yourself now. Stop thinking about all those people. Forget about them. You must forget all those bad memories. Berenger: But they keep coming back to me. They are very real memories.”
Evidently, the source of jouissance as rhinoceros has a transformative effect. It takes a rational, logical person who believes in the Nietzschean will-power, constantly tending to think and remember, and turns that individual into a rhinoceros who sings in pleasure. Rhinoceros symbolizes the gate to jouissance. It is powerful, it provokes people. On the other hand, resisting against this provocation brings forth the conversion of self-forgetting person into a curious, conscious being who decides to struggle with what he calls the “evil”. In that regard, turning into a rhinoceros is a positive event.
However, as stated earlier, what Ionesco means by rhinocerosization is the rapid Nazification of the country. This determines the point at which jouissance overlaps with Fascism. Hence one can speculate on the notion of a “political jouissance”, a collective act occurring in the social space, which reveals an extreme amount of enjoyment on the individuals. Additionally, it is not surprising that both the notion of jouissance and Nazism is somehow related to death.
Beckett’s text cultivates a devaluated language with respect to resistance against concretization, remembrance, the act of thinking and the very language itself. All of these aspects constitute his text’s absurd nature. Vladimir and Estragon needn’t seek survival in suicide since, as Camus stated, life no longer means something. Besides, when asked what was meant by Godot, Samuel Beckett answers: “If I knew, I would have said so in the play.” Beckett is no different than Vladimir; he voluntarily prefers not to know how to read, think and how to write. Lucky’s triad is one exception; in order to produce a nonsensical utterance, Beckett should consciously separate the utterances that make sense from the ones which don’t make sense. He has to know, regulate and control Lucky’s triad so that the utterances don’t correspond to particular references. Hence, in producing a distorted language, as a writer he is in his most conscious state. This is not a criticism of Beckett; it is his contribution which points at the paradox of togetherness of language and non-language. Such that, in order to represent silences, the author has to write “silence” and he eventually fails to escape language. Despite all the efforts of presenting a non-language – devaluated, distorted one -, the author should pay attention to the language; there is no non-language without language. However, this doesn’t mean that Beckett fails; as his text acknowledges the togetherness of non-language and the language, one can suggest that he points out the absurd nature of the language itself.
The only point which differentiates Ionesco from Beckett is that Ionesco’s text progressively constitutes the resistant act with language; not against language as depicted in Beckett’s text. Ionesco’s text is interested in politics; however one cannot claim that it is political. In a grotesque way, Ionesco illustrates Nazification of the continent in his text. It is catastrophic; contains critiques of rationalism, Nietzscheanism, Nazism and even Sartrerian existentialism but the way the text performs itself as opposed to the phenomenon of rhinocerosization is unconventional; thus anti-political. Instead of suggesting a new path way for the struggle against Nazism and all others, Ionesco respectively eliminates all possible performances which would emerge as a reaction against rhinocerosization. The moment when Daisy and Berenger were about to consider getting married and having children so that they could resist against those weird creatures, Ionesco doesn’t let his text to display an Adam & Eve story in the end. Instead of challenging Nazism on political realms, Ionesco accentuates the catastrophe against which Berenger struggles to resist all alone. The catastrophe reveals itself with the existence of a pure language. That pure language is at the same time dead, since no one speaks or understands it except for Berenger.
As one last remark, in spite of my speculations on the ways in which jouissance exists in Ionesco’s text, together with Beckett’s text, they can both be read as texts of jouissance, which imposes a state of loss, discomforts, unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of the reader’s tastes, values, memories and brings to a crisis the reader’s relation with language.
Adorno, Theodor W. & Horkheimer, Max. “Dialectic of Enlightenment” California, Stanford University Press: 2002.
Barthes, Roland. “The Pleasure of the Text.” Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill&Wang, 1975 Beckett, Samuel. “Waiting for Godot” London: Faber and Faber, 2006
Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens.” In Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
Blanchot, Maurice. “Communication and the Work.” The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smack. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
C. Lamont, Rosette. “Ionesco’s Imperatives: The Politics of Culture”. University of Michigan Press: 1993.
Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays” New York: Vintage International, 1991 de Man, Paul. “The Resistance to Theory.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986
Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” New York: Vintage Books, 2004
Ionesco, Eugene. “Rhinoceros, The Chairs, The Lesson” London: Penguin Books, 2000
 Camus’ absurdity implicates the impossibility of knowing. Therefore, one has no option other than voluntarily blinding him/herself to what Camus calls meaning. Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays” New York: Vintage International, 1991. p. 51
 Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” New York: Vintage Books, 2004. p. 23
 Ibid., p. 23
 Ibid., p. 23
 Ibid., p. 26
 Martin Esslin is first to coin the term “Absurd” Theatre in his book published in 1961 “The Theatre of the Absurd”.
 Blanchot, Maurice. “Communication and the Work.” The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smack. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. p. 198
 Beckett, Samuel. “Waiting for Godot” London: Faber and Faber, 2006. p.79
 Ionesco, Eugene. “Rhinoceros, The Chairs, The Lesson” London: Penguin Books, 2000. p. 18  Ibid., p. 34
 Ibid., p. 12
 C. Lamont, Rosette. “Ionesco’s Imperatives: The Politics of Culture”. University of Michigan Press: 1993. p. 137-138
 Adorno, Theodor W. & Horkheimer, Max. “Dialectic of Enlightenment” California, Stanford University Press: 2002. p. 104
 Beckett, Samuel. “Waiting for Godot” London: Faber and Faber, 2006. p.81
 Ibid., p. 84
 Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” New York: Vintage Books, 2004. p. 60
 Ionesco, Eugene. “Rhinoceros, The Chairs, The Lesson” London: Penguin Books, 2000. p. 26
 Ibid., p. 20
 Ibid., p. 24
 Beckett, Samuel. “Waiting for Godot.” London: Faber and Faber, 2006. p.36-37-38
 Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens.” In Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. p. 80
 de Man, Paul. “The Resistance to Theory.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. p. 84
 Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” New York: Vintage Books, 2004. p. 88
 Barthes, Roland. “The Pleasure of the Text.” Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill&Wang, 1975. p. 6
 Blanchot, Maurice. “Communication and the Work.” The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smack. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. p. 194
 Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” New York: Vintage Books, 2004. p. 142
 Ionesco, Eugene. “Rhinoceros, The Chairs, The Lesson” London: Penguin Books, 2000. p. 118
 Ibid., p. 121
 Ibid., p. 122
 Ibid., p. 124
 Barthes, Roland. “The Pleasure of the Text.” Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill&Wang, 1975. p.4
 Ibid., p. 4
 Ibid., p. 21.
 Ibid., p. 9-10-11
 Ionesco, Eugene. “Rhinoceros, The Chairs, The Lesson” London: Penguin Books, 2000. p. 123
 Ibid., p. 121
 Ibid., p. 121
 Ibid., p. 98
 Ibid., p. 100
 Ibid., p. 93
 In one of his interviews, Ionesco said that “Dudard is Sartre”. “For Ionesco, Sartre’s failure to denounce the existance of the gulags smacked of rhinoceritis of the Left.” C. Lamont, Rosette. “Ionesco’s Imperatives: The Politics of Culture”. University of Michigan Press: 1993. p. 145
 Ionesco, Eugene. “Rhinoceros, The Chairs, The Lesson” London: Penguin Books, 2000. p. 113-114
 Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” New York: Vintage Books, 2004. p. 44
 Barthes, Roland. “The Pleasure of the Text.” Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill&Wang, 1975. p.14