Of Rhinoceroses and Men
The New York Times Magazine recently published a piece by Teju Cole (as it turns out, a fellow writer and photographer) regarding the Eugène Ionesco play "Rhinoceros". In the article (worth the short time to read in its entirety) parallels are drawn between what occurs in the play to the current socio-political climate.
It is a Sunday afternoon in a provincial town in France. Two men meet at a cafe. One of them, Berenger, is half-drunk. He is being berated by his companion, Jean. All of the sudden, they hear a great noise. When they and other townspeople crane their necks to figure out what’s going on, they see a large animal thundering down one of the streets, stamping and snorting all the way. A rhinoceros! Not long after, there’s another. They are startled. It’s outrageous. Something must be done. What they begin to do is argue heatedly about whether the second rhino was the first one going past a second time or a different one, and then about whether the rhinos are African or Asiatic.
Things become more disturbing in the next act. (This is a play: “Rhinoceros,” written by Eugène Ionesco.) The rhino sightings continue to be the subject of pointless dispute. Then, one by one, various people in the town begin to turn into rhinos. Their skin hardens, bumps appear over their noses and grow into horns. Jean had been one of those scandalized by the first two rhino sightings, but he becomes a rhino, too. Midway through his metamorphosis, Berenger argues with him: “You must admit that we have a philosophy that animals don’t share, and an irreplaceable set of values, which it’s taken centuries of human civilization to build up.” Jean, well on his way to being a rhino, retorts, “When we’ve demolished all that, we’ll be better off!”
It is an epidemic of “rhinoceritis.” Almost everyone succumbs: those who admire the brute force of the rhinos, those who didn’t believe the sightings to begin with, those who initially found them alarming.
That this particular play, which was written in the 1950's as an allegorical investigation of the widespread rise of fascism throughout Europe in the lead-up to World War II now feels so pertinent should give us serious pause. One must consider that most of the dictators that rose to power at the time - most notoriously Adolf Hitler - were elected democratically by the people of their given nations. The political framework from which such nearly unimaginably reprehensible despots arose was, in fact, quite similar to our current structure.
That being the case, we should then question if we are culturally, intellectually capable of repeating such devastating mistakes. At first glance it would appear unlikely given how Nazis are regular, established, and unequivocal villains in our current Zeitgeist. From Indiana Jones to Inglorious Basterds, Nazis have become an easily recognizable symbol for what we hold to be evil. What is more, freedom is ingrained to be perhaps the greatest tenet in our pantheon of values. To surrender that to any single autocrat or even an authoritarian regime would seem a betrayal of what many in the U.S. would consider the most American of mores.
And yet, would your average American be able to recognize a Nazi without the uniform? If one looks, one might see a nation ill-equipped to distinguish freedom from a flag. Such are legitimate worries posed by those who look at a bigger picture, but just as important are the less-asked, tougher question posed to us by Ionesco here, specifically - when face-to-face with the growing reality of a society shifting toward strong-arm, supremacist, fascist nationalism, would you yourself shift to accommodate your personal values for the sake of convenience? Comfort? Safety? Or perhaps the most powerful of these - belonging? Your gut reaction might be to recoil at such a trade, yet in reality to dismiss the notion so quickly could very well indicate one's own susceptibility. Here is where the sometimes blunt allegories of "Rhinoceros" may prove useful some 60 years later. As Cole points out:
In the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016, the winner of the presidential election was declared. As the day unfolded, the extent to which a moral rhinoceritis had taken hold was apparent. People magazine had a giddy piece about the president-elect’s daughter and her family, a sequence of photos that they headlined “way too cute.” In The New York Times, one opinion piece suggested that the belligerent bigot’s supporters ought not be shamed. Another asked whether this president-elect could be a good president and found cause for optimism. Cable news anchors were able to express their surprise at the outcome of the election, but not in any way vocalize their fury. All around were the unmistakable signs of normalization in progress. So many were falling into line without being pushed. It was happening at tremendous speed, like a contagion. And it was catching even those whose plan was, like Dudard’s in “Rhinoceros,” to criticize “from the inside.”
Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else. This is not a process that began a week or month or year ago. It did not begin with drone assassinations, or with the war on Iraq. Evil has always been here. But now it has taken on a totalitarian tone.
This sounds like a slow but accelerating tide rising up from underneath, one which will overcome us and inevitably drown our sense of humanity. However, Ionesco provides a delicate touch on these heaviest of themes - more empathetic in tone than condemning - a voice that seems to endeavor further than a cynical commentary on some Lord-of-the-Flies-like savagery fundamental of men. (As "Rhinoceros" is retrospective in nature, Ionesco's primary concern was likely to dissuade humanity from repeating its most reprehensible of mistakes)
Each character other than the protagonist Berenger reasons, rationalizes, even condemns the spreading rhinoceritis in their own fashion - that is, before ultimately succumbing. Yet none of these characters are entirely detestable before transforming. These are not outliers, but ordinary and even more respected members of society. The recognizable way in which each one grapples with the absurd nature of what occurs around them at this moment in time may seem all too familiar. As the first rhinoceros is spotted, there is the expected surprise from much of the citizenry, but it can only be expressed in repeated cliches ("Well, of all things!" is repeated 26 times by various people in town). The characters that engage in more intellectual conversation get hung up in inane particulars - whether it was one rhinoceros that passed the same spot twice, or if it was two different rhinoceroses, and if the rhino(s) had one horn or two. Sound much like political discourse in America yet?
Still, it comes off not as a damning verdict on human behavior so much as a comically incisive satire on intelligentsia of all ilk. Ionesco observed that traditional education and scholarship offered, perhaps disappointingly, little protection in the face of the irrational and aggressive nationalism that swept across Europe and it's mirrored in a majority of the characters' dialogue. In place of action or even baseline alarm or panic, there is mostly a desire to give dispassionate analysis. Wait and see. That too may sound uncomfortably familiar.
In the end, all succumb to rhinoceritis save for our unassuming and unlikely protagonist Berenger, a sort of comic everyman in the mold of Homer Simpson. It is curious that Berenger, who we would presume by Ionesco's life experience to be a semi-autobiographical character, would be painted in such an unflattering light. He makes his initial entrance arriving at lunch with his friend Jean both late and drunk. Jean then repeatedly chastises him for his lack of character and self-control. Berenger agrees with little protest, not angry but sad that his friend gives such a frank analysis. He is characterized as much less of an intellectual than those around him, and at the sighting of the first rhinoceros, while all others exhibit due shock, he remains "apathetically seated". This is no Chomsky or Zinn, nor a revolutionary. Far from it. He is in many ways what we might consider just a normal human being. So the million dollar question is - what makes Berenger so special that he retains his humanity when everyone around him could not?
It turns out that no simple answer is provided (in fact if one pays attention, the townsfolk who have been quick to offer trite solutions and strategies to deal with rhinoceritis in the end all assimilate with little to no resistance) but that Berenger is so unspecial is cause for hope. By this Ionesco seems to posit that there is no intrinsic quality necessary to resist conforming to the herd. But what that this resistance makes Berenger our ultimate hero is a strong statement - while you may capitulate to belong to the larger group, may you never forget that by doing so you forgo your right to belong to a higher ideal of humanity.
And while the play offers a great deal of nuance beneath its absurdist shell, that's as specific as I care to get because really, any further analysis would only be a disservice to a read of the play itself. Better yet, if you have an opportunity, see it live. Because the beauty of art is that it so often accomplishes what mere description can't, and that it may yet still deliver when self-proclaimed expertise so often falls woefully short.
Read the play? Have questions? Insights? Feel free to open up discussion below in the comments.
E.E. Norris is a photographer, founder-editor of Concrete & Light, and director of The Art Cart NYC. He would like us all to look - intently and in every direction - so that we might share a sustained and profound sense of joy that may come from observing the infinite complexity of the physical universe and human potential.