Mythical Self and Infernal Labyrinth: The Dantean Dimension of Ionesco’s Dreamscape

Ioana Isabella Sion
University of Toronto
Toronto, Canada

1. Myth and Archetype

Today, homo religiosus is on the brink of extinction. For the unreligious man of our time, adrift in a mute and opaque Cosmos, transcendence has become problematic, shows Mircea Eliade, the historian of religions. The process of the desacralization of nature, of the world, of myth began long ago, and although it appears to have reached a climax in the 20th century, there is reason to believe that it is not yet finished. The “cry for myth,” to use Rollo May’s words, sounds even more compelling in the desacralized world of the 21st century, which fervently conjures up dream images of its sacred beginnings.

“A great work of art is like a dream; for all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is always ambiguous,” Carl Jung emphasizes (CW 104). In order to understand the nature of the primordial image or experience shaped by the text, the interpreter has to plunge into “the healing and redeeming depths of the collective psyche,” where the individual can communicate to the whole of mankind. The literary critic can explore the nature of artistic creation by re-immersing himself in a participation mystique that both writer and reader experience at the moment of creation or reception/interpretation. By operating a descent into the collective unconscious, and by having its roots in our psyche’s core of universality, the great work of art, in Jung’s view, is not subjective; it is impersonal and objective. Both myth and art are born from archetypal images, and Ionesco’s last plays, although apparently subjective, autobiographical, and representative of a personal quest, extend their ambit to man’s quest for the absolute, empowered by the impersonal supremacy of the archetype.

Myths and archetypes are fundamental in helping us to remember our humanity – they catalyze the process of anamnesis. We are forever faced with the problem of the unrecognizability of the miracle which derives from the camouflaged intervention of the sacred into the real world in a series of ‘historical forms’ – manifestations apparently banal and not different from other cosmic or historic manifestations. As Ionesco acknowledges in his conversations with Yves Bonnefoy: “Theatre is the revelation of something that was hidden” (143).

The world of Ionesco’s drama reflects his preoccupation with the spiritual life, with mystical revelation and the experience of light and darkness. His theatrical space is imbued with the same issues as those engaging the historian of religions: the sacred and profane qualities of time and space; the transposition of space, the transformation of time and the transgression of boundaries; thecamouflage of myth and the unrecognizability of miracle.

Once considered to be the alpha and omega of ‘the absurd’, towards the end of his life and in a quite different vein, Ionesco operated a de- and re-sacralization of everyday life.  He endeavored to create revealing fissures in our commonplace representations of the world. His plays aspired to unveil the sacred, to disentangle it from the profane, to encourage the generative process of anamnesis, and to confront us with paradoxes, oxymorons and other contradictory elements from parallel “other-worlds.”

The invading, disruptive presence of a paradoxical element, represents the emergence of the sacred into the profane – manifestations of the sacred that defy and disturb the profane, ways used by Divinity in order to reveal itself and show the way out of the inextricable labyrinth. A common example in Ionesco’s work is the need to uncover the meaning of ‘disruption’, to precipitate its occurrence. He fights strenuously against desacralization by bringing either bald sopranos, rhinoceroses or colossal corpses into the quotidian, or by confronting us with ambiguous events, by effacing the boundaries between the world of the dead and our world, by creating a crack in historical time, by giving us a glimpse of the eternal time at the beginning.

The otherworldly journey reveals a tapestry of interwoven myths: the myth of the eternal return, the cosmological myth, the Biblical myth starting with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The myths of the judgement day, of the apocalypse and of human temporality – the finite duration of man’s individual and collective existence – also find their way into Ionesco’s later dramas. Mircea Eliade considers the mythical beginning to be homologous to the apocalyptic end, eschatology becoming one with cosmology. The end and the beginning are one and our myth of descent into the darkness and confinement of the inferno marks the new beginning of the ascent into Paradise.

2. Ionesco’s Labyrinthine Realm of the Dead and Dantean Intertext

2. 1. “Le Rêve c’est le drame même”: Dream, Drama and Fundamental Mysteries

A genuinely infernal voyage between the land of the father and that of the mother, outside the sacred and within the profane, or vice-versa, takes place in Eugène Ionesco’s last plays, particularly in L’Homme aux valises (1975) andVoyages chez les morts (1980), two plays which could be qualified as autobiographical and oniric, mythic and metaphysical. “La dimension profondément autobiographique de la pièce ne dissimule pas le désir de l’auteur de fonder le théâtre sur le mythe” (Jacqart 258). L’Homme aux valises(HV) was staged in December 1975 at the Théâtre de l’Atélier in Paris, with the mise-en-scène by Jacques Mauclair and Jacques Noël, and the first production of Voyages chez les morts (VCM) goes back to September 22nd, 1980 at the Guggenheim Theatre in New York. Voyages chez les morts was first published in installments in La Nouvelle Revue Française (January to March 1980), and in volume in the last tome of Ionesco’s theatre (1981). It represents his ars escrivendi as well as his ars moriendi, the acceptance of his past life and future death, his coming to terms with his self and his approaching the threshold of the Otherworld.

Ionesco’s theatre involves the manifestation of his dream world, what he calls an independent universe, of the mysteries of being and identity, of loss and otherness. Theatre is a masking and unmasking of another world, a dreamed autobiography. It inhabits the realm of the eternal present moment, a place where forgotten archetypes can be discovered. Man is not simply a social animal, but an enduring essence. As Ionesco confesses: “I am concerned with the fundamental mysteries which haunt human consciousness” (PP 90). In order to perceive the hidden primordial core, the writer must perform the annihilation of the Cartesian universe seen as a logical system that distorts reality. Time, space, age and sex become capricious, vague and subjective. Identity is uncertain, names shift and characters are grotesque: as in a dream, they drift through incoherence, anxiety, remorse, and haunting events of their past lives. Particularly in the case of Jean, the author operates a total depersonalization by means of repetition and proliferation.

As we know from The Bald Soprano (1950) and The Lesson (1951), “philology leads to calamity.” Similarly, in his later plays the playwright conceives the final breakdown, the utter deterioration of language and grammatical construction, mocking the sterility and tragedy of clichéed communication, through abrupt linguistic dislocations and non-sequiturs. Contradiction follows contradiction and paradox rules. Ionesco stresses banality, repetition, incongruity, absence of objectivity in order to force the eruption of the sacred.

A departure from, as well as a continuation, of the anti-plays he was writing in the 50s, which were the model for much experimental French theatre, Ionesco’s last plays still hold up a mirror to the spectators, and the playwright continues remorselessly, post-facto, to keep his early promises of freeing theatre from convention and habit, “the great deadener”, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett, by exposing his dream world in creating “a pure drama, anti-thematic, anti-ideological, anti-social-realist, anti-philosophical, anti-boulevard psychology, anti-bourgeois, the rediscovery of a new free theatre” (Ionesco PP90)

The two plays spatially and psychologically unfold as an infernal labyrinthine dreamscape where the main character – Jean (VCM) or Le Premier Homme (HV), who displays many fundamental identity traits with the playwright  – searches for his patronymic name and his sacred origin connected to his mother tongue and motherland, while wandering across the profane fatherland.

2. 2.  L’Homme aux valises: First Man’s Redemption

Dante is obsessively preoccupied by the odious details of 14th-century Italian political history, and Ionesco, in his early plays, is vehemently engaged in 20th-century politics (against totalitarianism and fascism in Rhinoceros, Tueur sans gages) or private family politics in his later plays (L’Homme aux valises,Voyages chez les morts). The First Man is a perpetual wanderer who can never be freed from the anxieties and phantasms of the past, the frustrations of his adolescence and the negative charge resulting from the endless feud between his maternal and paternal relatives. Ionesco discusses in Entre la vie et le rêvethe main character’s “congenital exile,” his illusory escape from his father’s country and failed arrival in his mother’s land. Finally, without home, passport or nationality, not belonging anywhere, he becomes nobody, unidentifiable and stateless:

L’histoire de L’Homme aux valises est celle d’un homme qui ne veut pas retourner dans son pays, mais qui n’est pas sûr, en rêve, de lui avoir échappé vraiment, qui est toujours hanté par sa jeunesse et les problèmes qu’il a vécus. D’où ce personnage qui est chez lui tout en n’étant pas chez lui : quand il veut être chez lui, dans son pays, l’administration, le pouvoir lui refusent l’appartenance à ce pays ; quand il veut partir, au contraire, on lui reconnaît cette appartenance et on l’oblige à rester. Finalement il ne sait plus quelle est son appartenance, quelle est sa nationalité. Il cherche une ambassade étrangère pour obtenir un passeport, mais ce passeport ne lui est donné nulle part. En réalité ce personnage n’appartient à aucun groupe déterminé et se sent partout comme congénitalement étranger. (EVER 182)

L’Homme aux valises can be divided into dramatic units or what Greimas calls narrative sequences, which correspond to memories, nightmares, dreams experienced by the author which appear in a video-clip-like format. Ionesco confesses he wrote the play “par bribes,” following the structure and language of dreams by putting together fragmentary recollections, snatches of conversations, beads of memories. The various bits surface from his personal unconscious and form a hallucinatory collage marked by a labyrinthine structure, revelatory and characteristic of Ionesco’s imaginary world, which confers on the play an infernal dimension linked to the paternal world, the infinite linearity of time and horizontality of space. Ionesco indicates in his confabulations with Claude Bonnefoy:

Le labyrinthe c’est l’enfer, c’est le temps, c’est l’espace, c’est l’infini, alors que le paradis au contraire est un monde sphérique entier où tout est là, ni finitude, ni infini, où le problème fini – infini ne se pose pas. C’est ce que me semblait être La Chapelle-Anthenaise : un lieu désangoissant. Dès que nous sommes dans la dimension ou la durée, c’est l’enfer. (EVER 41)

The village La Chapelle Anthenaise of his childhood, a sheltered spherical world outside terrestrial space and time, is linked to the paradise of the mother, to the absolute and immaculate fit between heaven and earth and the primordial time of the beginning (the illud tempus of myth as discussed by Ionesco’s friend, Mircea Eliade). His youthful years are spent under the spell of his father’s inferno, in the totalitarian and authoritarian country of origin, of hellish constraint and confinement.

Ionesco’s Underworld has a veiled resemblance to Dante’s Christian Inferno, it is a land of shifting concepts, of the relativity of aging, of the unforeseen. Ionesco’s infernal space echoes Dante’s realm through the use of some objects, phrases, episodes and characters. The structure of Dante’s Inferno is no longer preserved, although Man With Bags opens with the barren bank of the Seine (the Acheron) where the First Man awaits for Charon’s barge to take him to the other side, in order to join the other lamenting souls. Like Virgil’s triple repetition of “vo’ che sappi” in canti 4 and 12 of the Inferno, the First Man repeats three times “I want you to know” (10, 28, 115) throughout his infernal journey into the dark land where “even the falling rain was black” (131). A montage of sounds: “screams, gunshots, jet engines, babies crying, human sobs” (121) replace Dante’s sinners’ “sighs, lamentations and loud cries” (Inf.3.22).

The boat or the oar appears three times in the play and makes us think of Charon’s boat or the Egyptian boat of the dead. It suggests the crossing of three thresholds, the three passages in Dante’s Hell over the rivers Acheron, Styx and Phlegethon. The crossing of the Styx takes the traveler to the Gate of Dis. Like Dante the pilgrim, after a short threshold preparation for entry to lower Hell, First Man plunges with humility and faith into his unconscious and becomes aware of the darkness within. Boat and oar are also symbols of Ulysses’ or Dante’s stamina and determination, they evoke their triumph, their ample mastery of the voyage willed from above, as well as of their psychic life. First Man desperately tries to be in control of his journey, but without succeeding, his boat always travels à la dérive. He would then, with similar mythological material at his disposal, be an inverted figure of Ulysses or Dante the pilgrim.

Thresholds invariably take the form of a border control, an exam, an interrogation. We can discern three essential passages – First Man’s three landings: the first disembarkation in the country of exile and the symbolical loss of his third bag (his identity), the second landing in the country of origin (the land of the father), and the police control at the border, and finally the third landing in front of the Woman, mimicking the final reunion of Ulysses and Penelope, of Dante and Beatrice, after pursuing a chaotic itinerary. The country of origin or of the father can be equated to the Inferno, the land of the Woman or of the mother can be associated to the pure love of Paradiso. They are both outside time and space and inside First Man’s mind. The country of exile, where the protagonist alias author lives – after being expelled from the mother’s world and escaping the fatherland – represents the purgatorial present, symbolic of the quotidian wanderings in the dimension of time, torn by the tension between the opposites and struggling toward individuation. The real world where the soul is exiled constitutes the daily ordeal of the anti-hero’s initiation. There are no dreams in Heaven or Hell, in the maternal and paternal worlds, for these two realms are timeless, all the recounted dreams and nightmares emerge from the Purgatory of exile, swept up by the anguish of growing old, of being immersed in historical time.

The three, and then two bags carried around by the First Man contain all his guilt and complexes relating to the paternal authority, his overloaded collective and personal unconscious. They vary considerably in weight, from light to heavy and back again, according to his perception of the sacred, as he gets closer to, or distances himself, from the paradisiacal spark, the degree of lucidity required to achieve his obsessive hallucinations and hoped-for transcendence. As in a hot air balloon, the three bags, when gaining weight, keep him closer to the profane earth, to the prosaic paternal world, to verbal delirium, and when they become weightless, the First Man is close to taking off into the silence of the light. Acknowledging Jungian analysis and the fundamental bipolarity of his writing, torn between coexisting hell and paradise, Ionesco underlines:

Je ne sais pas ce qu’un psychanalyste pourrait en penser. Nous avons déjà parlé de Jung, je crois. Un jungien dirait que ce que j’écris est névrotique parce que ma littérature exprime la séparation entre la terre et le ciel. Tantôt, en effet, c’est la lourdeur, l’épaisseur, la terre, l’eau, la boue, tantôt c’est le ciel, la légèreté, l’évanescence. Ce que j’écris serait donc l’expression d’un déséquilibre entre terre et ciel, un défaut de synthèse, d’intégration, l’expression d’une manière de névrose. (EVER 38)

Descent and ascent, sinking, climbing or flying, Ionesco’s obsessive movements in Victimes du devoir and Tueur sans gages, La Vase and Jacques ou la Soumission, are also present in L’Homme aux valises, although he is a prisoner of horizontality; verticality is only attained in the words and the mind of the First Man. He never considers parting from them because he is incapable of dissociating from his personal and collective past, which might contain seeds of the sacred primordial time, glimpses of paradise among the ‘gunk’ and the clutter of everyday negative emotions and memories. He feels helpless when facing the profanity of the desacralised present and hangs onto the residual past. “Le quotidien est une couverture grise sous laquelle on cache la virginité du monde” (EVER 33), Ionesco tells Yves Bonnefoy, the sacred heavenly essence of Jean’s being is obliterated by the everyday greyness, but is somehow still concealed in his bags. This most obvious triple stage object, dragged from the first to the last scene, could very well represent the convict’s ball and chain, Sisyphus’ rock and his eternal hellish punishment, as some critics have remarked. The two bags that are always with him could symbolize the paternal and maternal inheritance, the father and the holy ghost, and the one that gets lost – the son’s identity. The bag emerges as a metaphor for his personal mythology, the shackles of Dasein and the inseparable inferno of his mind as well as a symbol of the trinity, of the sacred camouflaged in the profane.

The circles and thresholds that mark the journey of initiation have various mythological echoes related to the myth of the descent to hell. Ionesco retains the outline and values of the traditional myth’s symbolism while stylizing and re-chiseling the mythical patterns in order to find their original freshness and metaphysical significance both universal and contemporary.

Multiple dreams are embedded in nightmares of the author’s homeland, of its contaminated political and social ethos, of the human condition perverted and distorted by totalitarian practices. The inner labyrinth of the first and second parts of the play extends progressively to the social inferno of the last part.  Mircea Eliade sees in the labyrinth a model of existence, a progression toward the soul’s centre: “qui, à travers nombre d’épreuves, s’avance vers son propre centre, vers soi-même, l’Atman, pour employer le terme indien” (MER 23). The labyrinthine structure recalls the circles of the Dantesque hell, it can be associated to a world of perpetual wandering, to themes of imprisonment and asphyxiation, and allows for an osmosis between the inner and outer worlds. The labyrinthine passage, twisted and tortuous becomes an existential experience, a spiritual journey towards the inner self. The labyrinth includes the monstrous fatherland of origin, the purgatorial country of exile and becomes an initiatory path toward the diaphanous world of the mother.

2. 3. Voyages chez les morts: Jean’s Harrowing of Hell

Voyages chez les morts appears like a fine embroidery of dreams assembled according to a subtle labyrinthine configuration, and having an episodical structure, “en miettes,” to quote the title of Journal en miettes. Jean doesn’t go from one point to another like the man with bags . He repeatedly and frantically comes and goes between the maternal and paternal extended families (he travels along a seemingly inextricable and impenetrable multicursal labyrinth),1 he delivers himself to interminable settlings of scores, which end with the last judgment scene followed by the final monologue. The search for the transfigured world of the mother, the cité radieuse of Tueur sans gages, is First Man’s as well as Jean’s crucial mission.

In his conversations with Marie-Claude Hubert, Ionesco underlines: “Le thème du labyrinthe est encore plus visible dans Voyages chez les morts. C’est un labyrinthe au niveau de l’espace, au niveau du temps , au niveau du langage et de la psychologie des personnages. Le monologue final, on peut l’appeler aussi un labyrinthe” (EI 258-9). Jean’s labyrinthine progression is both mythical and emotional. In the first part, the quest for the mother alternates with repeated confrontations of Jean with his father, which mimic the movement through the circuitous maze of memory and end with Jean’s first collapse. In the second part, art, literature, memory, mysticism are openings towards the other world and represent the milestones of his quest for the mother. In the third part we witness the unfolding of various recollections of the couple’s experiences and friends. The last two parts correspond to the Last Judgement, to Jean’s or Ionesco’s Testament or deployment of Anti-Knowledge, the final “je ne sais pas.”

Ionesco’s last theatrical work echoes his emotional and rational frustrations like a cri de coeur of disenchanted humanity as his religious aspirations melt into his soul’s itinerary. The protagonist goes a long way to encounter past loves and lost friends, not through an infernal underground but along the contorted labyrinthine circuits of memory. Along the way, he comes across recollections and dreams associated with the stark reality and frenzy of the modern world, which constitute the confining stifling universe of Man severed from transcendence.

Voyage chez les morts is the story of a renowned writer, Jean, who must face his ghosts, and catch up with his departed mother. One of the obvious themes is the quest of the mother, who, we are told, went to the station, purchased a ticket in a sleeping car, and disappeared towards an unknown destination – the mother Goddess who sailed to eternity or was taken away by Charon’s boat. The realistic details of his parents’ conflict and subsequent separation are mixed with the mythical journey of the soul to the realm of the dead. It is a journey of discovery and a peace mission, a search for lost particles of his self and a settling of accounts with people who formed his human universe. Like Dante’s infernal souls who are hardly interested in or aware of their present situation, and are only obsessed and resentful of their past, Jean is floating in the world of his dreams and remains mired in his past. Jean’s journey of initiation is triggered by his memories of past events involving his departed loved ones, and probably the imminence of his own death. Dreams and memories take our “hero” to the other world. Memory is what connects the ghosts to their past lives, while perpetuating the conflict among them. Similarly to Dante’s sinners, they are connected by memory to the world of the living, they are not forgiving and they are never forgiven. Like Dante, who in the Afterlife meets some of his friends and enemies, his beloved Beatrice and even his great-grandfather Cacciaguida, Jean also encounters the people he was close to in his life, his friends and relatives, and tries to come to terms with his one-time literary rivals, Adamov (Alexandre) and Beckett (Constantin).

Dante sees the renewal of the church in the reconciliation of the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Canto 11 of the Paradiso presents St. Thomas, a Dominican, praising the life of St. Francis, while canto 12 shows a Franciscan, St. Bonaventure giving praise to St. Dominic.  Like Dante, Claudel and Beckett, Ionesco is preoccupied with the reconciliation of the opposites, the coincidentia oppositorum.

The central quest of his play appears to be the individual pursuit of wholeness through descent and ascent by achieving the reconciliation of the antagonising parts of his self, of his father and mother, and the two different cultures and religions they represent. “The defense of the Occident” can be carried out only by one able to bridge the two cultures, the Occidental and the Oriental, by virtue of having been born in the Balkans, at the crossroads of civilizations, at the centre of the “Empire du milieu.”2 Similarly to Kundera, Ionesco believes in the spiritual and intellectual unity of Eastern Europe and its mediating role between “Orient” and “Occident”. The playwright identifies openly with the spirit and mission of his “Empire du milieu”:

Tout est à remettre en question. Tout à reprendre. Mais je continuerai à défendre l’Occident, la vénérabilité du cosmos grec, la liberté que nous confèrent les planètes, l’existentialisme et le gnosticisme, le droit d’inférer, la spéculation valentinienne, le chant de la perle. La défense de l’Occident, la danse de l’exitant, la campagne italienne, la marche sur Rome, la défense de l’Occident, l’Occident de la défense, les dents de la défense,3 la défense de l’Occident, la défence de l’occiput et mon itinéraire politique. Le statut de l’homme, la culture, les cultes orientaux, la défense de l’Occident, la dent de la défense, la fence de la dent. (VCM 324. 25)

Ionesco, again like Claudel and Beckett, believes that the origins of evil coincide with that of creation; according to Valentinian Gnosticism, the First Man can be redeemed and he will rise again. So Jean must visit the underworld, in order to encounter the spirit of the Great Mother and Father, to explore the sacramental relationship of the divine marriage, and of the possibility of neutralizing the opposites into the simplicity of the One. Like “pious Aeneas”, Jean will have to pass through the gate of ivory, “les dents de la défense” in order be able to see into the future, like Dante’s infernal inhabitants, who, although confined to darkness have the capacity to foresee the future.

Boganda, a former French colony in China, is described as a harmonious “cité radieuse”, populated by great riders, known as the Last Knights of the Occident, although they live in the Far East. Its capital, Bocal (bocal, variation of pocal; in Romanian: vessel, receptacle, chalice), evokes the vessel of the alchemists where matter undergoes transubstantiation. Bocal appears as a New Jerusalem where East and West merge and opposites are reconciled.

Jean, like the First Man, encounters a multitude of shadows defined through the memories of their earthly lives: “des ombres avec de la mémoire” (324. 14). But unlike Dante’s sinners, which have a fixed place and an inalterable essential self, Ionesco’s damned undergo a violent process of ageing and display variable identities. “J’ai vielli en attendant” (325.47) confesses the mother, who still has a strong connection to the world above. The condition of waiting can have dire consequences in the Beyond, and extreme ageing is one of them, until the accounts with the living are settled. But otherworldly time can also work in opposite directions, and those who are at peace and have finished their earthly business become young and luminous: “Quand on est bien là-bas, le temps est compté à rebours. C’est faux quand elle dit qu’on vieillit dans l’au-delà (324. 18).  In Ionesco’s dream play, the mother becomes the sister and the wife, the father changes into the grand-father, and in the judgement scene, the grand-mother becomes the mother:  “L’éternité nivelle tout” (324.24). Finally, in the third section, Jean realizes that the psyche is ageless and unchangeable, the personal blends into the collective unconscious and acquires immortality: “la psyche n’a pas d’âge!” and “l’inconscient ne vieillit pas” (326.37). Consequently, “on peut changer de peau”, however, “on ne peut pas changer d’être” (326. 47), the essential being is preserved eternally throughout an indefinite number of rebirths.

When Jean is reproached by the shadow of his dead wife for having forgotten modern Romanian, Jean replies: “Je sais lire encore, je reconnais le mot ‘ange’” (324.16). The word “angel” is the only recognizable sign of a long forgotten belief in God.  When he is invited to read religious books, Jean confesses: “Pour moi, ils sont à peu près incompréhensibles. Avant je les comprenais, j’ai oublié, je me suis séparé de la religion” (325.66). The protagonist’s separation from God is the cause of his eternal wandering in a selva oscura where uncertainty rules. Jean displays an unquenched thirst and a persistent hunger, “une sorte de boulimie”, and he complains repeatedly: “J’ai faim tout le temps!” (325.66). As in the case of Claudel’s damned, the incessant hunger for spiritual light is Jean’s perpetual torment.

Jean is often engulfed by eternal Nothingness, “l’éternité du rien”, where time is void: “depuis des annés le temps est vide, distendu”, and where everything is in vain, except for love, which, as in Dante, is the driving principle of the universe, of life and death, “tout est vain, c’est de l’amour que l’on devrait mourir” (346.43).

Dante’s “cercle” and “enceinte” make their episodic appearance in the third section. “Hélas, qui peut garantir que nous n’en sommes qu’au premier cercle. Le deuxième sera peut-être pire” (326.41). Jean is uncertain of his exact location, because space has lost its meaning: “Je cherche l’espace perdu” (326.49). He can only perceive, like his long lost friend, Alexandre (an alter-ego of Arthur Adamov) the pressure of the confined space: “j’ai l’impression de vivre dans une cage” (326. 47). The final break through would be to evade the surrounding wall: “Il faudrait aller au-delà de l’enceinte, sauter le mur” (326.46).

In Dante and the descents into hell of the previous centuries, the presence of God and of Satan, of the various gods or of a certain pre-established destiny precipitate divine retribution in the afterworld. In the final judgment episode, the accusations of the grandmother against the father’s second wife echo the prophetic tone of the Divine Comedy. Like Dante who subjects his sinners to the implacable law of the contrapasso, the old woman, as a representative of a just but vengeful God – “Dieu est juste mais il est féroce aussi,” (326. 54); “je suis la Justice. Non, plus que cela, je suis la Vengeance (326. 55) – ensures that all family members receive the punishment fitted to their crime. The second wife, the Witch, is accused of being part of a dishonest family, of having a brother who is a thief and a murderer, through abuse of his official position as a military magistrate. The episode of the harpy picking the brain of the Capitan recalls count Ugolino’s and archbishop Ruggieri’s notorious story of canto 33 of the Inferno. Dante encounters the two infamous traitors, gnawing at each other’s head, in Antenora of the Ninth Circle, Second Ring, where the traitors to their homeland are punished. By becoming the regime’s executioner, the Capitan betrayed his country and deserves a similar sentence. The characters are frozen, and “like the fratricidal traitors of Dante’s Inferno, remain entangled in the icy-web of their ever-repeated, relived, insoluble recriminations” (Lamont 105). According to Rosette Lamont, Dante’s traitors further share with Ionesco’s ghosts the frosty climate of the Danubian winters, evoked in canto 32 of the Inferno: “The Danube where it flows in Austria, / the Don beneath the frozen sky, have never / made for their course so thick a veil in winter / as there was here;” (Inf. 32. 25-8). The iced lake of Caïna, where traitors to their kin are immersed, in the Ninth Circle, First Ring, seems like glass and reminds the Florentine poet the thick ice of the frozen Danube.4  Finally, the Witch is forced to drop her youthful mask and show the real image of her hideous soul, while the old woman becomes young and beautiful. The Machiavellian Father is strangled by his last concubine, in just retribution for being unfaithful to both his wives.

In the case of Jean, essentially through his sensitivity to Buddhism, Ionesco retains only penitentiary elements that underline his obsessive feeling of guilt. Around Jean gravitate the traditional figures of the Ferryman and the Woman: the Ferryman assures the crossing but does not guide; the Woman awaits him but does not lead him anywhere. The oriental mirage appears in the person of a Japanese woman in traditional kimono, who crosses his path but does not speak. The cryptic sacred books remain silent because Jean has lost the code that would have allowed him, from a linguistic as well as religious viewpoint, to decipher them. He is disconnected from transcendence, the sacramental relationship with God is temporarily severed. Resigned and disillusioned, Jean paradoxically reaches his experience of light through one of nothingness, of disintegration, of neutralized subjectivity, of dissolved individuality. His final monologue attests to the nullification of his ego and complete cosmic integration.

The last scene can be read against the background of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and recalls Lucky’s famous monologue in Beckett’s En attendant Godot. Seemingly ruined, exhausted, crushed, Jean breaks free into a stream of disconnected words and ideas. He is experiencing his own descent into hell or crossing into the other world and delivers live his experience of mental dissolution. The realization of the void, the unbinding of the soul is the goal of most Tibetan religions. It allows the self to attain Nirvana, the primordial blissful state of the unborn, after breaking free from the wheel of Samsara, in our case from the broken circles of the infernal labyrinth of Jean’s wanderings in the world of the living. Allusions to the lack of knowledge, to ignorance and the sacred myth mark the stages of a slow descent to the underworld, to the origins of the self. Words are transformed, unintelligible, they indicate his gradual departure from the world of the living, the sinking of the character into the bardo, the world of in-between life and death. They suggest the experience “en direct” of the descent to the afterworld or ascent to paradise, towards the unnameable and the indivisible, the primordial oneness, at the centre of his being. It anticipates destruction, shattering, total collapse of the self or enlightenment, or both, Ionesco’s favourite paradox, the final coincidentia oppositorum. This monologue can very well be Ionesco’s farewell to theatre:

Jamais, jamais, jamais, tout ceci me vient soudain à la tête, dans la tête rongée par les mites de l’ignorance, et bien les mites de l’ignorance, les mites de l’ignorance, les mites mythiques de l’ignorance concernent, déconcertent. (…) Mesdames et messieurs qui n’existez pas, et toi public, qui es un trou noir, mon exposé contient plusieurs arguments d’importance d’où il suit que le sauveur sauvé sauvera. (…) Tout en causant je m’aperçois que les mots disent de choses. Les choses disent-elles des mots ? (…) Je ne sais pas. Je sais seulement que j’ai gardé sur moi les bribes et les miettes des cellules. / Je ne sais pas. (VCM: 133-4)

3. Ionesco’s Return to Myth and Labyrinth

The double plot of search and avoidance, the unreliability of the senses and of rational thought, the regressus ad absurdum and the obsession with memory as a trap prove the two dramas to be a labyrinth of time and space:

The labyrinth has only one function: to reveal, by completing his presence, the existential authenticity of the Theseus who seeks to undo it. It is the very inextricability or interdependency between Theseus and his labyrinth, between hero and plot, between text and context, between ourselves and our world that constitutes the subject of discovery during the confrontation at the centre (Nolan 15).

The labyrinthine voyage creates the traveler, as the hero devises his journey. Theseus is part of the labyrinth, and the labyrinth is conceived for him alone. Finding the way to the centre is his initiation and his trial. First Man and Jean are recreated through successive experiences of terror and light, until the final cosmic death, followed by spiritual epiphany and rebirth.

Jean, like Orpheus, incurs the wrath of the maenads. Symbolic death is always followed by a “resurrection” or a “rebirth,” Eliade stated in his lecture “Waiting for the Dawn”. The Orphic journey ultimately reaffirms the force of the art transcending death. Walter Strauss gives an outline of the stages of the traditional Greek myth:

There are three major “moments” in this myth: 1) Orpheus as a singer-prophet (shaman) capable of establishing harmony in the cosmos (his apocryphal participation in the journey of the Argo elaborates this motif); 2) The descent into Hades (katábasis): the loss of Eurydice, the subsequent subterranean quest, and the second loss (here all accounts are in agreement except for the problem of motivation, and this is certainly the best known and most popular portion of the myth); 3) The dismemberment theme (sparagmós), which suggests a possible deviation from Dionysus or a friction between bacchantic Dionysus-worship and Orphic practices. (Strauss 6)

The shaman-writer Jean was once in harmony with nature, capable of showing his peers the way to the Otherworld. This episode precedes the drama, and is only inferred by the protagonist who once was a successful writer. After the loss of his mother, Jean roams the realm of the dead in her pursuit. Most of the play addresses the katábasis motif and exposes Jean’s wanderings in the infernal labyrinth. The third episode, sparagmós, can be symbolically conceived as the dismemberment of Jean through the disintegration of language, the only “material” at hand, the protagonist’s only “reality”. As in the case of Orpheus, the symbolic dismemberment is also suggestive of a transmutation to an ideal artistic plenitude.

Modern Orpheus, like his predecessor from antiquity, is a “fraternal poet”, a humanist participating in the sufferance of humankind, a shaman or healer of souls, beginning with his own. Similar to Dante of the Vita nuova, who experiences his renewal through the love and death of Beatrice, or Dante of theDivine Comedy who accedes to Christian redemption through descent and ascent, Ionesco also conceives regeneration in terms of descent into hell and creates his own universe of redemption. According to Ovid, after Orpheus’s dismemberment, instead of his corpse, the nymphs discover a flower with a circle of white petals around a yellow centre. The flower symbolism recalls Dante’s most inspired pattern, the rosa sempiterna, the white rose with its yellow center, formed by the souls of the Empyrean. The rose is like a immense amphitheatre, divided vertically and equally between the Old and New Testaments, with the upper rows on one half formed by souls who believed in Christ to come, and on the other half those who believed in Christ when he came. The circle and centre motif points at Orpheus’ transformation into God after his death, the Christic sacrifice of the poet.

“If the poem could become a poet, Orpheus would be the poem: he is the ideal and the emblem of poetic plenitude” (Blanchot 143). He is the origin of the artistic creation, the infinite trace of absence concealing the secret affinity between writing and dying, the transmutation of the invisible into the visible. Rainer Maria Rilke believes that the interior space or the poem “translates things” from the exterior language into the inner one. In the world, things are transformed into graspable objects and in the imaginary space they are transmuted into non-graspable things. The writer is the “essential translator” and his task is the metamorphosis of the invisible into the visible, and vice-versa. This transmutation into visibility, into free subjectivity, allows the artist to grasp afresh its singular verbal and visual weave, and is followed by a certain “objectification” of inner fantasies. The fictive language of the unreal is exposed, turned into image and given an objective body.

The otherworldly journey can also be read as a conte philosophique. Its central theme is the nature and forms of interpretation of the past, deeply rooted in an irreducible truth. Story-telling – recounting personal myths – is a cognitive activity par excellence. Such a view leads to a “hermeneutics of trust.” The opposite view belongs to what Paul Ricoeur has named as “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

Every real existence reproduces the Odyssey… The chance to become a new Ulysses is given to any exile whatsoever … but to realize this, the exile must be capable of penetrating the hidden meanings of his wanderings, and of understanding them as a long series of initiation trials (willed by gods) and so many obstacles on the path which brings him back to the hearth (toward the centre). That means: seeing signs, hidden messages, symbols in the sufferings, the depressions, the dry periods of everyday life. Seeing them and reading them even if they aren’t there; if one sees them, one can build a structure and read a message in the formless flow of things and the monotonous flux of historical facts (Eliade NS 84-85).

In “Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote” (1939), Jorge Luis Borges demonstrates with infinite irony how an early 17th-century text means something totally different against the backdrop of the 20th-century. Menard is the fictitious 20th-century author who recreates a masterpiece identical to Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Same words convey different meanings when placed in different contexts, and the dynamics of the Borgesian short story reveals the metamorphosis of myth itself. When recontextualized, any myth becomes a new myth. In Ionesco’s drama, the evocations of the Ariadne-Theseus myth of the labyrinth, or the myth of Orpheus or Ulysses, attempt, in fact, a transformation and renewal of these myths. The journey of the First Man retells the story of a contemporary Orpheus in search of inspiration, an amnesiac Theseus lost in a labyrinthine dreamscape, or “a new Oedipus, confronted with the enigma of his birth” (Hubert 211). Concomitantly, the main character is suggestive of Adam awaiting the final reunion with his bare-breasted Eve. The constant inversions and metamorphoses of the biblical or classical Greek myths lead to a re-creation of the myth itself, as a comprehensive story about the origins of humankind.

Along with the mythification of these characters and details, which are scattered throughout the earlier work, along with discovering the possibilities of childhood and the uses of images in literature, with discovering how to enlarge and perhaps even to relativize time and space, gradually emerges the only point of view – the mythical perspective – which can melt everything into a unified whole (Palencia-Roth 49).

The cosmic images of eternity, of primordial illud tempus, of the endless creative imagination are expressions of Ionesco’s “dreaming large”. His mythical images come from the collective unconscious, which is the realm of myth. Ionesco considers himself a dreamer of stories, his initial dreaming small mutates into dreaming large: “Writers do not become mythical if they do not dare, as Bachelard might say, to ‘dream large’. ‘Dreaming large’ is dreaming on the mythical level of mankind in general; ‘dreaming small’ is dreaming on the psychological level of the individual self” (Palencia-Roth 30).

The story of Jean’s family is essentially mythical, it is the story of the personal reality itself becoming collective myth. The biblical patterns of creation, decadence, catastrophe, renovation, rebirth are projected on the past, present and future of the writer-traveller. Jean, as well as the First Man, is a prophet and a psychopomp who leads his people to the Final Judgement and the Promised Land of individuation. With its contorted trajectory, which involves genesis and apocalypse, the story comes from the writer’s personal memory and enters the collective memory of the readers. Together, they show how “mythical metamorphosis” works in creating the intertextuality of Ionesco’s text. In these plays, the apocalyptic atmosphere is personal but also political. The prolonged diabolical dictatorship of a totalitarian regime pertaining to the land of the father, its authoritative and controlling methods and the moral and social degeneration provoked are suggestive of the reign of the Beast, the last days of the Antichrist, signalling the end of time.

The theme of the descent to hell expresses a desperate will to return to the origin, to regain the world of the mother, the paradisiacal Chapelle Anthenaise of Ionesco’s childhood, in an attempt that draws on a cultural Franco-Romanian Christian background, on Buddhism and psychoanalysis. The evocation of the dead in the mind of the First Man or Jean shows that the world of the dead lives in him, the dead are locked in his mind, they seek revenge and disturb his consciousness. Similarly to Claudel’s revengeful dead (Claudel LR 725-90), Ionesco’s dead also invade the world of the living, only not spatially but within the consciousness – they do not emerge from under the ground, but from the unconscious. The protagonist embarks on an inner journey to the underworld and does not perform an actual descent like Claudel’s Emperor. Ionesco resourcefully transposes the myth of the descent to the underworld by separating it from the world below, which traditionally represents a transcendental beyond outside man’s control. His ghosts mix with the living and inhabit his memory, migrating from his unconscious into his consciousness, the inferno is contained within, the personal reality is transformed into collective mythology, and to quote the writer again: “le réel est devenu mythologique” (EVER 183).

Ionesco abandons the traditional style of the descent to hell in order to apply a deeper metaphysical significance to his journey of initiation. The protagonist forgets his name, his native language and finally sinks into utter oblivion. The quest of qui suis-je ? is always connected to the issue of names and words, so as to make it hard to separate metaphysics from linguistics. The playwright retains the universal symbols of the boat, the oar, the bags, the repeated falls, the mental movements of descent-ascent, which typify his inner dream-like journey. This is where his originality resides, in the raw labyrinthine display of an unfolding infernal – soon to become paradisiacal – mystical experience. Ionesco confesses in Antidotes:

En fait, je suis à la recherche d’un monde redevenu vierge, de la lumière paradisiaque de l’enfance, de la gloire du premier jour, gloire non ternie, univers intact qui doit m’apparaître comme s’il venait de naître. (…) Enfance et lumière se rejoignent, s’identifie dans mon esprit. Tout ce qui n’est pas lumière est angoisse, ténèbres. J’écris pour retrouver cette lumière et pour essayer de la communiquer. (Antidotes 316)

There is no happy ending to the descent to hell without sacrifice. The self is purged, identity is obliterated, the impoverished language reaches its degree zero of expression. The dream will eventually lead from the sombre country of the father to the evanescent world of the mother, to lucidity and truth, to the radiant experience of ecstasy. Finally, when reaching paradise and mythical time, the personal reality of the main character alias author becomes mythological, the commonplace ignites a glorious epiphany. The poet is left perpetually descending and ascending in the sphere of words and dreams, so that he might join earth and sky and accomplish the coincidentia oppositorum, or as Gaston Bachelard puts it:

Les mots – je l’imagine souvent – sont de petites maisons, avec cave et grenier. Le sens commun séjourne au rez-de-chaussée, toujours prêt au “commerce extérieur,” de plain-pied avec autrui, ce passant qui n’est jamais un rêveur. Monter l’escalier dans la maison du mot c’est, de degré en degré, abstraire. Descendre à la cave, c’est rêver, c’est se perdre dans les lointains couloirs d’une étymologie incertaine, c’est chercher dans les mots des trésors introuvables. Monter et descendre, dans les mots mêmes, c’est la vie du poète. Monter trop haut, descendre trop bas, est permis au poète qui joint le terrestre avec l’aérien. (Bachelard LP 139)

In A Vision (1925), John Butler Yeats follows Dante and creates his own system of ordered visionary images in terms of lunar phases; Dante, Shelley and Yeats himself belong to the phase seventeen of the moon. Like Dante and Yeats, Ionesco put in his visions his family, friends and enemies, only his “system” lacks the traditional order. As Dante had distributed the people he knew along an intricate network of circles and gyres in the tripartite division of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, so Ionesco had assigned to each of them a place in his labyrinthine Afterworld.

The Divine Comedy, points out Mazzota, “carves a metaphoric space of dispersion where exiles seek and work” (274). Like the Comedy, Ionesco’s plays are spiritual food for exiles, they are visions of another realm, of alterity, which is embedded into sameness. The sorrowful exile is inside us, it is a calamitous part of us waiting to be mastered. Operating within these parameters, descending and ascending in the other’s world is the agonizing task of the poet.  As Dante famously puts it: “Com’è duro calle/ lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale” (Par. 17.59). The experience of alterity painfully reveals insight on the sameness. The soul must undergo the journey of exile in order to find his home. And the readers must also follow the experience of descent and ascent of the writer so that they may learn their own way of salvation.

The penetration of the labyrinth or the descent into the unconscious is an initiation rite known to the mystics, which can lead to cosmic death and epiphany of the Being. From the profane world of the personal consciousness, the subject is projected into the sacred universe of a transpersonal unconscious. Out of the darkness of the extricable inner labyrinth, an experience of beatific light and immortality emerges, common to shamans, Buddhists, Christian monks or contemplative atheists alike. The revelation of an ontological centre, home of the coincidentia oppositorum, is an essentially spiritual occurrence, a crack in the linearity of historical time, which enables the perception of divine love and the peaceful integration into the eternal Creation. “La rencontre avec la lumière produit une rupture dans l’existence du sujet, qu’elle lui révèle, ou lui dévoile plus clairement qu’auparavant, le monde de l’esprit, du sacré, de la liberté, en un mot: l’existence en tant qu’oeuvre divine, ou le monde sanctifié par la présence de Dieu” (Eliade LT 126). This experience of mystical light unlocks the creative imagination and connects the subject to the fundamental principle of the Cosmos, which is love, “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” (Par. 33. 145).

“Beckett nous réapprend que l’homme est un animal métaphysique ou religieux,” affirms Ionesco in Antidotes (209). In his praise of Dante, Claudel underlines that great artists do not invent their themes and receive inspiration directly from God. There is a poësis perennis of sacred essence, which resumes eternally the themes furnished by Creation. Similarly, Ionesco himself, like Beckett and Claudel, develops a new metaphysics of the sacred, which comes from the core of the collective unconscious.


1. For a detailed examination of labyrinths, see Penelope Doob. The Idea of the Labyrinth. From Classical Antiquity Through the Middle Ages. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1990.
2. Qtd. in Hubert, 235. Ionesco calls Eastern Europe “Empire du milieu,” recalling Paul Claudel’s use of the term in the context of Le Repos du septième jour. See also Claudel’s notion of “milieu.”
3. Penelope describes to Odysseus the mysterious gates of the world of Dreams/Sleep: one made of horn – forecasting the truth of days to come, one of polished elephant’s tooth – full of untruth.
4. Ionesco was born in Slatina, a town not far from the Danube, where his father’s family lived. He ironically says about himself: “I’m only a peasant from the Danube”.

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#Ioana Isabella Sion#Mythical Self and Infernal Labyrinth: The Dantean Dimension of Ionesco's Dreamscape#Vol. 5 Issue 1 Fall 2006