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A Primer on the Truth

In every vile, despicable, shit-stinking act of dehumanizing cynicism of the Bush Administration, one can always find a little ray of sunshine. My post immediately preceding this one was a late-night bark of despair at the nomination by Bush of that supremely accomplished incompetent, Wolfy, for the post of Head of the World Bank. There's an appellation for you.

Well, there being nothing else for it, post-bark, I plunged myself meaninglessly into a brief re-examination of the Theater of the Absurd. This has taken me down some interesting paths over the last few days, some of which I'm hoping to write about this weekend, but in the meantime permit me to mention something I encountered along the way that made me laugh out loud.

There is a famous story about how Eugene Ionesco came to write his first play (known in France as La Cantatrice Chauve, in Britain as The Bald Prima Donna, and as The Bald Soprano in the United States). In Paris, in 1948, Ionesco decided that he would teach himself English so he went out and bought an English primer. He brought the book home and set about his task. Anybody who has studied a foreign language at something approximating an adult age will know the silly language used in these sorts of books. I certainly remember them from my High School French classes. In any case, the bizarre, seemingly meaningless "stories" told in this English primer had a strange effect on Ionesco, and he was moved to write his play.

That's the story in outline form and I'd heard it a million times over the years, but I'd never heard the details of it from the man himself. Here follows a brief peek at the story as related by Ionesco and quoted by Martin Esslin in his classic text The Theater of the Absurd.

Ionesco writes:

I set to work. Conscientiously I copied whole sentences from my primer with the purpose of memorizing them. Rereading them attentively, I learned not English but some astonishing truths -- that, for example, there are seven days in the week, something I already knew; that the floor is down, the ceiling up, things I already knew as well, perhaps, but that I had never seriously thought about or had forgotten, and that seemed to me, suddenly, as stupefying as they were indisputably true....

As Esslin notes, the lessons presently became more complex and soon a Mr. and Mrs. Smith were introduced:

To my astonishment, Mrs. Smith informed her husband that they had several children, that they lived in the vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr. Smith was a clerk, that they had a servant, Mary -- English, like themselves... I should like to point out the irrefutable, perfectly axiomatic character of Mrs. Smith's assertions, as well as the entirely Cartesian manner of the author of my English primer; for what was truly remarkable about it was its eminently methodical procedure in its quest for truth. In the fifth lesson, the Smiths' friends the Martins arrive; the four of them begin to chat and, starting from basic axioms, they build more complex truths: 'The country is quieter than the big city...'

And thus began the playwriting career of one of the most astonishing playwrights of the 20th Century.

The moral here, of course, is don't forget to keep your eyes peeled for hidden truths lurking before your very eyes. You don't want to miss your chance to be the one who discovers, for example, how the human race might save its sorry ass.


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