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TAC Bookshelf: When Men Become Rhinoceroses

Here's what our writers and editors are reading this week.
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Gil Barndollar, TAC contributor: Avant-garde French plays perhaps aren’t ideal beach reading, but then many of our beaches have become no-lounging zones in this summer of pandemic, protest, and (symbolic) patricide. Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, first performed in Paris in 1960, tells the tale of a community whose inhabitants rapidly transform into a horde of horned beasts.

Set in a provincial French village, Main Street on the Meuse, the first act opens with a rumpled, hungover everyman, Berenger, being chastised by his friend Jean for his dissolute ways. (The stage directions tell us of Berenger: “everything about him indicates negligence.”) The pair of old friends, and a handful of their neighbors, see a rhinoceros inexplicably bolt down the next street.

This apparition is quickly dismissed, “a stupid quadruped not worth talking about.” But further rhino sightings follow, and soon the villagers are themselves becoming rhinoceroses at a rapid clip. The reactions of the dwindling band of humans evolve just as rapidly, from dismissal to fear to excuses and finally to acquiescence. The collaborator’s calculus is made explicit: “They don’t attack you. If you leave them alone, they just ignore you. You can’t say they’re spiteful.”

In the end, Berenger, forsaken by friends and lover, stands alone. Shaking himself out of a brief spell of horn and hide envy, he remains defiant as the curtain comes down, vowing, “I’m never capitulating!”

Ionesco was born to a Romanian father and a Franco-Romanian-Jewish mother. He split his early life between the two countries. Though Rhinoceros is in part an allegory of Vichy France, collaboration, and the “strange defeat” of 1940, Romania’s World War II story runs through the work as well.

Romanian fascism was driven by the Legion of the Archangel Michael, later the Iron Guard. Their worst atrocities trailed the Nazis only in scale. Unlike in Germany or Italy, disgruntled, revanchist trench war veterans did not form the core of Romania’s fascist movement. The Legion was a party of peasants and students. Interwar Romania had more students per capita than far wealthier Germany, and too few jobs for this nascent intelligentsia.

Two of Romania’s most celebrated intellectuals, the philosophers Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade, were lifelong friends of Ionesco’s. Yet both became rhinoceroses before the war, praising totalitarianism and the Iron Guard. Ionesco appears to have eventually forgiven them.

The green skin of Ionesco’s rhinos alludes to both France’s German occupiers (“haricots verts”) and the Iron Guard’s “Greenshirts.” An absurd debate on whether the town’s rhinos are African or Asian adds a brief satire on racism to the play. To underscore the mindless cant of all ideologies, Ionesco’s characters repeat clichés and banalities.

The play’s villagers all fall prey to rhinocerization, regardless of their positions and philosophies. Men of the Right and the Left become beasts with equal alacrity. Berenger’s erstwhile friend Jean, a stern preacher of temperance and bootstrapped self-improvement, turns into a rhinoceros in the midst of invoking natural law and “primeval integrity.” His opposite is the smug union clerk Botard (“he knows everything, understands everything, judges everything”). After steadfastly dismissing the rhinoceroses as fake news, Botard eventually bends the knee. His final words? “We must move with the times.” Even the town’s farcical “Logician” becomes a rhinoceros, straw boater atop his horn.

In 2020 America, with its stultifying two-party straitjacket and the relentless politicization of every single thing, there are rhinoceroses all around us. Our economically superfluous students probably aren’t future pogromists nor is either flavor of American populism likely to end in totalitarianism. Yet the dizzying crises of the past three months sometimes seem oddly apposite. As Ionesco once told a colleague: “My work isn’t absurd; life is absurd.”