Since the beginning of the War on Terror, LRC has, from time to time, reviewed and recommended re-viewing of some great anti-war movies. In the same spirit, readers may find it well worthwhile revisiting a play that deals with a collateral phenomenon associated with war as waged by the modern, democratic state: the coercive conformity of behavior and opinion that is required to mobilize society and its resources for war.
Few, I suspect, will doubt that a new groupthink emerged from the ashes of 9/11. President Bush himself gave the first sign of what was expected of us shortly after 9/11 when he announced that those who were not with us were against us. Mainstream conservative publications such as The Wall Street Journal, National Review and The Weekly Standard, erstwhile occasional allies in the quest to establish a more limited government, transformed themselves almost overnight into staunch apologists and advocates for the War on Terror and unabashed advocacy of a U.S. Imperium, whole-heartedly devoting their considerable intellectual and rhetorical skills to the new cause. Some conservative commentators mocked the idea that we needed to observe the Constitutional nicety of having Congress actually declare war before we began bombing Afghanistan, being a mere formality in a case such as this.
When, early during the war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration began advocating war with Iraq, Democrats who did no more than ask for concrete information about the overall strategy and goal of the war were lambasted by the administration and talk radio, were quickly silenced by the fear of adverse public opinion, and hastened to rehabilitate their reputations by Congressional resolutions supporting the troops. Not to be outdone in aiding the war effort, Bill Bennett formed Americans for Victory Over Terrorism in order to "take to task those groups and individuals who fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the war we are facing," and to hold meetings at prestigious universities to staunch a college anti-war movement. By a stroke of good fortune, Hollywood was ready with the release of projects glorifying courage, honor, and heroism. Currently, there is a barrage of commentary and advocacy aimed at creating mass support for President Bush's plans to bring about a "regime change" in Iraq.
A time like this cries out for college and community theater groups to re-stage Eugene Ionesco's great play about conformity, Rhinoceros.
Ionesco, generally known as the father of the "Theater of the Absurd," was born in 1912 in Romania and settled in Paris at the age of 26. He despised communism, and campaigned from exile against the authoritarian regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. He died in 1994. Rhinoceros is perhaps his most famous play. First produced in Paris in January, 1960, and prompted by Ionesco's reflections on the German people's transformation into Nazis, the story takes place in a small French town in which, unaccountably, people begin changing, in ever-growing numbers, from human beings into powerful, destructive beasts — rhinoceroses.
When a rhinoceros first appears in town on a Sunday afternoon, charging down the street, no one realizes it is one of their fellow citizens. No one knows where it came from or how it appeared. Did it escape from a zoo? But there are no zoos nearby! The townspeople are frightened, shocked and outraged as the beast runs through town, killing a cat. They can't get over it, they say! It's unthinkable, they say! There ought to be a law against this sort of thing, they say! They're not going to stand for it, they say!
After a rhinoceros runs by a second time, a fruitless argument ensues between the main character, Berenger, and his fastidious and cultured friend, Jean. A logician joins in the debate, and much logic and passion are brought to bear on the question whether there was one or two rhinoceroses, and whether the rhinoceros was of the African or Asiatic variety. Some of the other eyewitnesses — Daisy and the café owners — try to comfort the woman whose cat was killed.
The next morning at the office people are arguing with Daisy about whether or not there really was a rhinoceros. Botard, who is very distrustful of the establishment, does not believe what he reads in the newspapers, and proclaims that he campaigns against ignorance wherever he finds it, declares in succession that it is nonsense, an infamous plot, a myth, and outright propaganda. Dudard, "a law graduate and first-class employee," is arguing that, well, it is in the newspaper, and is trying to stick to basic facts. Mr. Papillon, the head of the office, wants everybody to stop wasting time and get back to work.
Soon Mrs. Boeuf shows up to report that her husband will not be at work because he has the flu. A rhinoceros soon appears outside, trumpeting. It begins to climb the stairs, as if trying to come to work, and the stairs collapse. Suddenly, Mrs. Boeuf recognizes that it is her husband! Although first overcome with shock, she decides she cannot abandon her husband and jumps down to ride off with him. Since the stairs have collapsed, the officemates call the fire department to come rescue them. They are told to wait, they will be there; they have been called out for other rhinoceroses. As many as 32 have been reported! Botard proclaims the phenomenon a traitorous plot and vows to unmask the perpetrators.
The next scene finds Berenger visiting his friend, Jean, at Jean's apartment to apologize for the argument over the rhinoceros. Jean, however, is not looking well. His voice has become hoarse, but when Berenger asks him about it Jean swears that his voice has not changed but that Berenger's certainly has. Jean's skin is greenish and his head hurts. He feels hot and he keeps going into the bathroom to cool himself down, but every time he emerges his skin is greener, and soon he has small bumps on his forehead. Jean ignores Berenger's importuning to see a doctor. Berenger apologizes that he is being so insistent, but after all he is Jean's friend. Jean denies that there is any such thing as friendship, and that he doesn't believe in Berenger's friendship. When Berenger remarks that Jean seems to be in a very misanthropic mood today, Jean eagerly agrees, and says that people better keep out of his way or he'll run them down, adding: "I've got one aim in life. And I'm making straight for it."
When Berenger tells Jean that Boeuf has turned into a rhinoceros, Jean doesn't seem very surprised. He begins arguing that there is nothing very remarkable about it, that it must have given Boeuf great pleasure to turn into a rhinoceros, and that rhinoceroses have just as much right to life as we do. When Berenger demurs that their right does not include the right to destroy our lives, and that our moral standards are not compatible with those of these animals, Jean proclaims that he is sick of moral standards. "We need to go beyond moral standards!" Berenger inquires what Jean would put in their place. "Nature! . . . Nature has its own laws. Morality is against Nature." Would Jean replace moral laws with the law of the jungle, Berenger asks. Yes, that would suit Jean just fine.
The argument over the relative superiority of men and rhinoceroses degenerates and, finally, Jean pokes his head out of the bathroom to say something and Berenger sees that he has become a rhinoceros. Berenger just barely slams the door on him as Jean bellows, "I'll trample you, I'll trample you down!"
The final act finds Berenger in his apartment, where he is recovering from an injury he suffered escaping from Jean. Dudard comes to visit him. Berenger seeks reassurance from Dudard that he is not "becoming someone else." Is his voice changing? No. Does he have any bumps on his head? No. Berenger nervously tries to determine whether he is developing a headache.
They begin speaking of Jean's transformation into a rhinoceros. Perhaps it's a disease. Berenger is frightened of catching it. Dudard tries to calm Berenger down by arguing that the phenomenon is not that big a deal. Probably the people who have become rhinoceroses will get over it. And the rhinoceroses are not so bad. If you leave them alone, they just ignore you. There's nothing you can do about the situation so just accept it. Let the authorities deal with it.
Eventually the talk turns to the office and the repair of the staircase. Will the new one be stone? No, wood. What does Mr. Papillon say about that? Well, Dudard let's on, nothing. Mr. Papillon has turned into a rhinoceros. Berenger is shocked. No! He can't believe it! "He had such a good job!" Berenger thought he had more character! And it's particularly hard to see why he changed because Berenger cannot see what possible material or moral advantage there could be in it for Mr. Papillon.
Surely Botard must have been incensed at the chief's change? Oh, yes, Dudard tells him, he was absolutely outraged. Well, Berenger opines, that proves that Botard is a good man after all. Berenger is sorry that he misjudged him.
Berenger is upset; he insists that Mr. Papillon had a duty to resist. Dudard claims that Berenger is too intolerant. We must understand, and to understand is to justify. There is no real evil in what occurs naturally, and what's more natural than a rhinoceros? But what could be more unnatural than for a man to turn into a rhinoceros, Berenger wants to know! Well, says Dudard, it is difficult to know where the line is between normal and abnormal. Berenger claims that Dudard's excessive tolerance is "really only weakness . . . just blind spots."
Soon Daisy shows up to visit, and brings news: Botard's become a rhinoceros! Berenger cannot believe it. Botard was against it! He protested! Did he give any reasons? Daisy reports, "What he said was, we must move with the times! Those were his last human words."
Berenger allows that now that he thinks it over, Botard's firmness was only a pose. "Which doesn't stop him from being a good man, of course. Good men make good rhinoceroses, unfortunately. It's because they are so good that they get taken in."
A great noise is heard. The walls of the fire station have been demolished. All of the firemen have turned into rhinoceroses, the whole regiment is pouring out of the station, led by drums. More rhinoceroses are pouring out of the houses everywhere. Dudard observes that there isn't any of "us" left anymore.
Daisy suggests that they eat. But Dudard doesn't feel hungry for tinned food; he suddenly feels like eating out on the grass. Berenger warns him that he is weakening and pleads with him to stay. No, Dudard feels it is his duty to stick by his employers and friends, through thick and thin. Soon he rushes out and is gone.
Daisy and Berenger are now alone. They discover that each has long harbored a secret love for the other. They vow to stay with one another: "No one can separate us. Our love is the only thing that's real."
The phone rings, and Berenger answers. Trumpeting is heard from the receiver. He hands it to Daisy so she can hear; she is shocked and quickly hangs up. Daisy is frightened. What is going on, she wants to know. "They're playing jokes now," says Berenger.
Daisy is rattled. The earth is trembling from the stampedes, and the noise is incessant. Daisy has a headache. Berenger tries to comfort her by telling her he loves her, and not to worry, the rhinoceroses are just a passing phase. But Daisy thinks that they should just let things take their course; what can they do? "We must adapt ourselves."
Daisy looks out at the rhinoceroses. "Those are the real people. They look happy. They're content to be what they are. They don't look insane. They look very natural. They were right to do what they did." Berenger pleads, please, think of our love! No, Daisy says that she "feels a bit ashamed of what you call love — this morbid feeling, this male weakness. And female, too. It just doesn't compare with the ardour and the tremendous energy emanating from all these creatures around us."
"Listen," she says, "they're singing." No, they're roaring, says Berenger. No, says Daisy, Berenger is mad. They're dancing too, and they are beautiful. "They are like gods." She slips out while Berenger is nervously examining himself in the mirror.
Now Berenger is alone. What can he do? "The only solution is to convince them — but convince them of what? Are the changes reversible, that's the point? Are they reversible? It would be a labour of Hercules, far beyond me. In any case, to convince them you'd have to talk to them. And to talk to them I'd have to learn their language. Or they'd have to learn mine. But what language do I speak? What is my language? Am I talking French? Yes, it must be French. But what is French? I can call it French if I want, and nobody can say it isn't — I'm the only one who speaks it. Do I understand what I am saying? Do I? And what if it's true what Daisy said, and they're the ones in the right?"
He begins to examine himself in the mirror, trying to convince himself that he's not ugly to look at. He looks at old photos, but wonders if he recognizes the people in them. He contrasts them with rhinoceros heads he sees, which have become very beautiful. No, he decides, I'm not good-looking. "They're the good-looking ones! I was wrong! Oh, how I wish I was like them!"
He begins imitating their sounds, and tries to turn into a rhinoceros, but he can't. "I should have gone with them while there was still time. Now it's too late! Now I'm a monster, just a monster. . . . I can't stand the sight of me. I'm too ashamed! I'm so ugly! People who try to hang on to their individuality always come to a bad end!"
Suddenly he snaps out of it. "Oh well, too bad! I'll take on the whole of them! I'll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them. I'm the last man left, and I'm staying that way till the end. I'm not capitulating!"
So the play ends.
Rhinoceros presents a very dark assessment of man's social nature, his desire to "fit in." No one, it seems, can resist turning into a rhinoceros. All the good attributes or character traits that people have are powerless to prevent their transition into powerful, destructive beasts who readily abandon the constricting moral guidelines of normal human relations for the freedom and raw, unbounded energy of "the law of nature," where might makes right and anyone who stands in the way of single-minded pursuit of a goal is trampled down. Cultivation, refinement and friendship cannot prevent it (Berenger's friend, Jean turns). Great powers of thought cannot prevent it (the logician turns). Being a respected and well-to-do member of the establishment cannot prevent it (Mr. Papillon turns). Being anti-establishment, a vocal advocate of social justice and protestor of man's exploitation of man cannot prevent it (Botard turns). Public service, or dedication to saving or helping others cannot prevent it (the firemen turn). Romantic love cannot withstand it (Daisy turns). No human relationship can survive the overwhelming desire or need to be part of the herd, to "fit in," to "move with the times," to adjust to the new "normal." All human relationships pale in significance, and are cast aside, because of the appealing "ardour and the tremendous energy" of the New Man.
Indeed, the only one who does not turn is one who cannot. Berenger, it is established early in the play, is a man who has never "fit in" with his fellow man. Not that he is particularly strange or eccentric. He is polite, basically does his job, but is neglectful of his appearance, and does not quite inhabit normal human interactions. He's slightly out of kilter with his fellow man, and drinks too much because of it. He tells his friend Jean that he "just can't get used to life." So it seems that Berenger cannot become a rhinoceros because he has never been in sync with his fellow man his entire life. However, notwithstanding his social displacement (perhaps because of it?), Berenger is the staunchest advocate in the play upholding human ethics and standards against both the "law of nature" and a non-judgmental moral relativism that tolerates and accedes to monstrous or "natural" behavior.
Diverse philosophers have pointed out that man's standards of right conduct are determined relatively by reference to expected norms within a realm of conduct that is itself otherwise determined. Aristotle's description of right conduct as the mean between an excess and deficiency, e.g., courage being the proper conduct in the spectrum between rash conduct and cowardice, is perhaps the most well known description of this phenomenon. As Rhinoceros illustrates, positive character traits and virtues, and this entire mode of judgment, are no bar to brutality or to our transformation into monsters, because good and bad are judged relatively within a realm of conduct whose qualities are otherwise determined, reflective of and dependent upon what men accept or expect at the time. Dodard's observation that it is difficult to say what is normal or abnormal holds true: the normal is no more than that which is common or the dominant expectation. At the beginning the rhinoceroses are the monsters, but by the end, the rhinoceroses have become the beautiful and the sole remaining human being has become the monster. Nothing has been able to prevent this reversal of perspective.
No absolute standard determines what is good or what evil; good is simply the mean or favored state within the current accepted realm of behavior. Men whose characteristic means of understanding or judging themselves and their actions is by reference to the conduct of others will, ineluctably, "move with the times." Indeed, the character traits or virtues that made them good "men" will equally make them good monsters throughout and after the transformation.
Far different from human virtues are God's commandments, which positively or negatively enjoin specific conduct, and are not relative to or contingent upon expected norms or the behavior of others, variable based on circumstance, but unconditional (e.g., do not kill, do not steal, love your enemies, love one another).* It is possible to imagine, for example, that a person who was a Nazi nevertheless had the human virtues of honor, integrity, loyalty, bravery, honesty and magnanimity, was a loving husband and good father, and would be revered as such by his fellow Nazis, for it is possible to have these virtues within the realm of behavior shaped by the overall goals of establishing the Third Reich and subjugating or eliminating the inferior races. It is not possible to imagine, however, that someone who adheres to the Christian commandments not to kill and to love one another could be a Nazi. Being unconditional, God's commandment does not "move with the times," and so does not permit one to think well of himself because he is virtuous — a virtuous Nazi.
Rhinoceros, however, goes well beyond merely illustrating that respected character traits and virtues are no bar to men's transformation into monsters. Ionesco's portrait is more frightening that that. Man is a social creature and, at the extreme, is unsure of his language, may be incapable of understanding himself, has trouble recognizing others, and cannot see himself as beautiful or worthwhile except by and through social interaction and comparison with others, which is possible only if or to the extent that he is substantially identical with others. Unless he changes with the others, he becomes, not merely outcast, but lost to himself; he becomes the monster whose voice is not understandable. Rhinoceros can be read to suggest that men will inevitably change, because they must in order to not lose themselves, in order to "be somebody" among their fellow man. The play never explains, though, how or why the transformation of a society takes place en masse. Theories are floated, people are encouraged to resist by will power or by appeals to morals, friendship, love, and decency, but this is always unsuccessful and the transformation nevertheless occurs. The why or how remains mysterious.
The assessment of how well Rhinoceros portrays the human condition or sheds light upon current events is best left to the reader. It is evident, however, that many of the nation's best and brightest have answered the Call to Greatness heard echoing in the rumble of the collapse of the World Trade Center, and have been pressing us hard to join with them. Listen! Are they singing, or roaring? It is evident that many find the ardor and tremendous energy of those who have taken up this new mission tremendously appealing and irresistible. Are these New Men beautiful, are they like gods, or have they become beasts? It is evident that long-standing ethical principles that hitherto governed — standards of decency, privacy and constitutional protections — are swept away overnight. Do we need to go beyond moral principles, or do these transformed creatures have no right to destroy our lives? Will the claim that we need to "move with the times" and adapt ourselves to the new reality, heard time and again in our government's pleas for more power, in calls for war and the destruction of our enemies, and in the vitriolic mockery of dissent, prove to be our last human words?
* "Very often, however, it is overlooked that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue. In part, this is a pagan view, which is satisfied with a merely human criterion and simply does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, as it says in Romans 14:23: u2018whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.' And this is one of the most decisive definitions for all Christianity — that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith."
~ The Sickness Unto Death, by Soren Kierkegaard, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, p. 82.
September 13, 2002