Why Writers Matter?

Reading Ionesco on the Meaning of Life

Srinagar, Publish Date: Dec 5 2018 10:54PM | Updated Date: Dec 5 2018 10:54PM
Why Writers Matter?File Photo

Once we approached the elders, priests, pirs/gurus and theologians to illuminate dark or difficult questions. Now people turn to writers/poets. Although it is the case that our most trusted guides – the fraternity of prophets and sages – are united in espousing the only Tradition we have as far as the ethics and metaphysics grounding saving truths are concerned – writers are sought to explicate essential saving truths by modern man amidst confusion of tongues. Amongst such writers certain especially stand out by virtue of their influence and remarkable presentation of certain saving truths that many have found helpful in illuminating difficult questions including that of our ultimate destiny. 

Although there are many who have not heard the anguish and pleas of major modern and postmodern prophets, the disturbing ground report is that we are living in difficult, dark and complex times where weather continues to be foggy and stormy and we find many dangerous voices pulling us in divergent ways. Our best writers show us the mirror and help us live without illusions by first helping identify illusions as such. “The challenge of modernity is,” as Gramsci put it,  “to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.” Living in an age where  indeed “living is abnormal” and

“we have not the time to take our time” and where politics understood as  “the art of preventing people from busying themselves with what is their own business” reigns supreme, one of the influential writers who exposes illusions and, echoing time honoured insights of mystical traditions, proposes a way out,  though not without certain problems and limitations from a proper traditional framework, is Eugene Ionesco. Over to Ionesco this week.

 “Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.” How sad to note that  ideological uses of religion have made fools of us and our friends or relationships and likes are usually confined to our own favorite sects. We are ever defending imaginary borders we have drawn around ourselves and rare is a believer who truly believes in God in other. When we encounter believers in other traditions/sects, somewhere hidden in our subconscious is an attitude of disdain or condescending pity. The problem is we are seeking answers and are comfortable with those we have inherited – and answers are dividing us – while the solution is to see, as Ionesco puts it, that it “not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” And “It's only when I say that everything is incomprehensible that I come as close as possible to understanding the only thing it is given to us to understand” Elsewhere Ionesco highlights another angle. “Why do people always expect authors to answer questions? I am an author because I want to ask questions. If I had answers, I'd be a politician.”

One needs to be big hearted and widely read to appreciate how so-called answers ordinarily projected as the best or final resolutions are sham. Appetite for easy explanations “separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible.” How irritating or soothing it is to hear “hope I have answered your question” depends upon how sensitive we are towards depths and complexities in even the simplest of questions. Take for instance, the question of meaning of life, creation from nothing, existence of God or meaning/grammar of God-talk, link between faith in particular Messenger and salvation, unwilling suspension of belief constituting apostasy from which so many suffer, restricting likelihood of salvation to particular groups who had the good fortune of being born in that group and arbitrariness of staking our whole life to inherited ideologies. And obsession with most of our favourite choices, binaries and exclusions disregards the call to be silent in the face of the Absolute or Truth. “When silence confronts us, the question to which there is no answer rings out in the silence. That ultimate "why," that great "why" is like a light that blots out everything, but a blinding light; nothing more can be made out..”.

On the contrary, if we analyze our tears, fears, dreams, passions and our shared love of beauty, joy, virtue and truth we would hardly find a difference in humans. When some tragedy strikes us our anguish is indeed one. For Ionesco politics lies while art, true art, cannot lie. “Politics separate men by bringing them together only superficially. Art and culture unite us in a common anguish that is our only possible fraternity, that of our existential and metaphysical community.” At the time of death of a young child or fleeing some disaster, our deeper unity asserts itself. It needs certain distance, complacency and insensitivity to sink in to allow us to claim our own superiority.  Ionesco gives us timely qualifying statement to make us  suspicious of fundamentalists of all hues:  “No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute. It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.” 

Ionesco aptly formulates key insights that form perennial heritage of mankind – paradise evoked by return to childhood, paradise as our essential home for which we have irrepressible longing, gratefully embracing mystery that lurks everywhere as a royal road to home. To quote him  “Childhood is the world of miracle and wonder; as if creation rose, bathed in the light, out of the darkness, utterly new and fresh and astonishing. The end of childhood is when things cease to astonish us.” “I am not entirely of this world. I am from elsewhere.” “It's only when I say that everything is incomprehensible that I come as close as possible to understanding the only thing it is given to us to understand.” “A person who has not completely lost the memory of paradise, even though it is a faint one, will suffer endlessly. He will feel the call of the essential world, will hear the voice that comes from so far away that one cannot find out where it comes from, a voice that cannot guide him.” 

Ionesco alarms us against fundamentalists and certain people who misleadingly claim to be mystics who appear to be too sure about their special access to the secrets divine leaving little scope for what great sages have emphasized regarding essential uncertainty or unpredictability that life appears to for great sages and poets. It appears that writers like Ionesco don’t go to the end of the journey that is undertaken by the Masters of inner life. Some veils fail to be lifted for generality of modern writers from Hesse to Kazantzakis to Ionesco to those like Joyce and Beckett whom Altizer calls seers. Comparing their  spiritual flights or achievements in  unraveling the full potential of being human with descriptions witnessed/realized first hand by such Masters as Ibn Arabi, Suharwardi, Shaykh Sirhindi, Shah Waliullah and Mulla Sadra, one feels evidence of  either what is called withdrawal of Being or sclerosis of spiritual nerves that accompanies advent of End times.  Writers like Ionesco lay bare our poverty and our failures in heroic pursuits and our tendency to confuse a milestone with the destination and warn us against specious consolations that, like Circe, trap us on our way home. 

PS: “People who don’t read are brutes. It is better to write than to make war, isn’t it?”, says Eugene Ionesco

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