The following is the text of M. Ionesco’s address at the 198S Ingersoll Prizes Awards Banquet:
I am extremely proud and honored to have been awarded the very prestigious T. S. Eliot Prize, which has been given to such persons as Jorge Luis Borges and the novelist Anthony Powell, artists who exemplify the prime values of the humanist tradition.
Since I wonder whether I am really worthy of this prize, and whether I deserve to be associated with personalities as powerful of those of my predecessors, it is with some trepidation that I appear here before you. Still, though I may not judge myself as being quite up to their measure, the fact that the jury of The Ingersoll Foundation has been kind enough to confer The T. S. Eliot Prize on me reassures me about the character or the value of what I have done personally.
Since you know T.S. Eliot, ladies and gentlemen, and know him far better than I, I should just like to recall a few of the fundamental points in his life, or rather his work, in commemoration.
After his studies at the Sorbonne and Oxford, T.S. Eliot took the path of devoting himself entirely to literature, and to literature of the highest order. With the very first work he produced, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in 1917, he broke with the literary tradition of the 19th century. He became the friend of Ezra Pound, and it was through Pound that he was introduced to the new Italian poetry, while, as we know, T.E. Hulme shaped his critical perspective.
Pierre Leyris, who translated his works into French, would later say of The Waste Land, which marks the summit of his poetic creation, that it was a multidimensional fresco, in which the presence of the author is as palpable as that of Courbet in The Painter’s Studio.
Eliot’s adherence to the royalist cause was accompanied by his espousal of classic values, and in works that followed he is visibly concerned with the relation between appearance and that spiritual reality whose themes are penitence and redemption. The theme of redemption in time and the inspiration provided by the Bible are, indeed, present in all his subsequent works.
I regret that my ignorance of English has kept me from a deeper knowledge of the work of this great mystic poet. Nevertheless, personally and in spirit, I feel myself very close to him, as I would to an older brother, a mighty forebear in the art of writing for the stage.
It is, in point of fact, Eliot’s dramatic work that moves me most profoundly and, along with other works, it is his great masterpiece, Murder in the Cathedral, that I remember most fundamentally and intensely. This play of Eliot’s made him the creator of an avant-garde. Like all true avant-garde works, it rediscovered and reaffirmed the bonds of the most ancient of traditions. It was not so much the reintroduction into this modern tragedy of the antique chorus, a feature that may appear somewhat formal, that won my absolute admiration, as it was the profound spirituality of Murder in the Cathedral. That is, the idea of sacrifice—for the honor of a cause that is God against king, God against political power. Sacrifice, as was the poet’s thought, saves souls: the protagonist of the play, Thomas Becket, offers himself up to death, willingly, gladly. He makes the choice of remaining what he is, here on this earth, and for all eternity, of finding life in eternity here on earth, and from this moment forward.
In contrast to those modern dramas that go astray with minor themes such as the futility of politics, ideology, love, money—that is, with diversions, whether slight or weighty—Eliot sticks to what is essential. That is, to man’s destiny, a destiny that is metaphysical and spiritual, and that can be nothing else.
Eliot is not often performed in France these days. But there is no one who doesn’t remember the wonderful hands of Jean Vilar joined in prayer in the initial performances of Murder in the Cathedral at the Vieux Colombier, right after the Second World War.
This spirituality, indeed, through the use of other means—less forcefully, perhaps—is what I have tried in turn to express: the essential, keen, fundamental need for religion and a metaphysical perspective, without which man is but a ridiculous puppet. With the difference that I have portrayed these values through contrast, negation, absence. If I have shown men to be ridiculous, ludicrous, it was in no way out of any desire for comic effect, but rather, difficult as this is during these times of universal spiritual decay, to proclaim the truth.
It is still possible, at least, to show what man becomes, or what he may become, when he is cut off from all transcendence, when the notion of metaphysical destiny is lacking in the human heart. That is, when “realistic” reality is substituted for the Real, the eternal. It is the sacred that is what is real, as my friend Mircea Eliade has so well put it. The so-called real whisked away by realism—for realism is not real—is only a convention, an academic posture, a low truth. The truth is quite the contrary: the real is not just a movement, a simple ideology that will pass. It is what is incorruptible.
That is the path I have chosen. I have tried to portray the abyss that is the absence of faith, the absence of a spiritual life. If I have consequently at times been comic, it was with the intention to teach. The comic is only the other side of the tragic; absence is only a form of the call or the presence of Him who waits behind the door for someone to open it for Him.
But perhaps He, Himself, will open it, and Himself appear, in His splendor. His beauty. His power. His glory.
I should have liked to present myself more effectively, more amply. Another time, perhaps. I hope so.