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STAGE : Ionesco: The Shallowness of a Writer's Fame

February 07, 1988

Saturday at 8 p.m., an "Evening With Eugene Ionesco" will take place at the James A. Doolittle Theatre to honor the playwright who was one of the prime players in the evolution of the Theater of the Absurd (as labeled by critic Martin Esslin). Ionesco is expected to be in attendance, and examples from his works (which include "The Bald Soprano," "Exit the King" and "Jack or the Submission") will be read by Rene Auberjonois, Bud Cort, Patty Duke, Fionnula Flanagan, Joe Frank, Arye Gross, Salome Jens, Tom Waits and Grace Zabriskie. (Information: (213) 462-3176 or (213) 465-1010.)

Ionesco has just published a new work of nonfiction, "La Quete Intermittente" ("The Intermittent Quest"). The following is a reprint of an exchange between him and French reporter Bruno De Cessole that appeared in the Paris Figaro Litteraire on Jan. 11.

Bruno De Cessole: You're an internationally acclaimed writer whose plays are already part of the classic repertoire, yet after reading your (new) book, one has the impression that literary notoriety, which you once valued, means absolutely nothing anymore.

Eugene Ionesco: It means nothing. Well, to be exact, it's a bit more complicated than that. On the one hand, I hate what is known as celebrity or notoriety, but on the other I've acquired some bad habits. If it were to disappear, if my name were forgotten, I'd be saddened. But it's true that literature doesn't mean much to me anymore. As a believer might say, it has not saved my soul. . . .

A lot of writers, however, even--or especially--agnostic ones, justify literature as a form of or substitute for immortality, not to say eternity.

It's a bad substitute. In the first place, immortality is not eternity, and I'm in search of eternity--absurdly perhaps, but tirelessly. As you suggested, for a long time, literature was for me a substitute for the absolute that was missing from my life. It no longer serves.

I then tried to find serenity in painting and, to a degree, I found it. What I miss is the absolute, what Mircea Eliade called the sacred, that is, the real. For me, realism is not reality. Besides, what is reality? No one can say, not irrefutably.

We haven't yet determined what is at the base of all matter, and realism is merely a literary school, much more false than the world of the imagination. The realistic writer is serving a cause, a circumstance that makes him tendentious and dishonest. Imagination doesn't cheat. The poet doesn't lie. He invents. Imagination dredges things up from the depths of the unconscious--images, symbols, signs that, in my view, come closest to what's real.

In the last few years, I've tried to conceive of the inconceivable, cross the limits of the limitless. I'm storming heaven, which is stupid when one has no spiritual direction, which is patience. I'm calling the heavens' bluff. I'm even trying to call God's.

Years ago, when I began to write, I was gripped by great doubt. I remember saying to a critic, God exists or not. If he does, what's the point of creating literature? If he doesn't, what's the point of writing? To put it differently, I should like to be anchored in the absolute. Throughout my life, I wrote play after play because I didn't know how to do anything else, yet I always did so with the feeling that I might have done something else, might have become a monk, a Trappist monk, or a painter. . . .

Like your friend (E.M.) Cioran, you're a mystic without idols, but, unlike him, you are desperately waiting for a sign from on high . ...

Yes, but Cioran says it with a lot more reserve, and more literature as well. He has the good fortune of clinging to something that shields him from the void: the (satisfying) sense of the well-written, the absoluteness of the semi-colon.

An absoluteness in which you no longer believe?

Precisely. Let me explain the title of my book, "The Intermittent Quest." By "quest" I mean a spiritual quest, "intermittent" because I very often fall back into the swamp of literary vanities. For instance, in this book I rebel against those who attribute to others (Arthur Adamov, Samuel Beckett) the paternity of the theater of derision. It's characteristic of my moments of weakness, when I revert to my anguish, which is more painful and acute in me than in others perhaps, and makes me forget the search for divinity.

Has literature been a diversion that momentarily distracted you from that anguish?

Yes, for a long time it was a diversion that provided a measure of contentment and with which I co-existed. Today, I try to extricate myself from it in order to return to my anguish. Because I'm under the impression that if I reach the depths of dereliction I may perhaps achieve some knowledge of God. . . .

Would you like to believe in predestination?

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