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Michael Wreen THE LOGIC OF IONESCO'S THE LESSON As men abound in copiousness of language, so they become more wise, or more mad than ordinary. Hobbes, Leviathan, chap. 4 (L a RiTHMETic leads to philology, and philology leads to crime."1 This is both XXthe plot and die pessimism of Ionesco's The Lesson. As the drama unfolds, the spectator watches the world of progress-through-education crumble and a world oflust and murder rise in its ruins. What has gone wrong? In a word, the life oflogic has become the logic oflife. To understand Ionesco's lesson, we must examine the (largely implicit) logic and philosophy of language of his Lesson. Logic, whether die classical syllogistic logic of Aristode, the modern symbolic logic of Russell and Whitehead, or die dialectical logic of Hegel, has two essentia ] components: a syntax, which distinguishes permissible from impermissible combinations and inferences, and a semantics, which allows interpretation and thus fills out the purely formal shell provided by the former. Ionesco's strategy is to show how each of these components as diey have come to be developed philosophically is inadequate to its real content — life, and how, together, they lead, at least metaphorically, to life's devastation. These diree conceptual moments correspond to the three dramatic divisions of the play, marked out by the interruptions of die maid. Ionesco begins with the methodology of logic, syntax, and focuses on arithmetic, which, we are told, "is more a method than a science" (p. 50). Since the time of Descartes, arithmetic, or more generally mathematics, has been the academic discipline par excellence, the study diat all of the empirical sciences have aspired to. So completely has the idea of the mathematical nature of reality impressed itself upon us diat for many people it has acquired the status of an 229 230Philosophy and Literature unquestioned, and even unquestionable, assumption. And for many in this group, including the Professor, it is more dianjust an assumption; it is a way of life. "Let us arithmetize a little," he says to his pupil (p. 51), and his neologism refers not just to a subject matter, arithmetic, but to a way of dealing with subject matters and, ultimately, to a way of dealing with the whole of reality. The noun "arithmetic" has become a verb, and the ascendancy of abstract method has begun. Formal logic, in adi diree of its classic Western forms, is now subjected to sustained and specific criticism. Generally speaking, the Pupil represents Aristotelian and Russellian humanism, a view based on an optimistic belief in man's capacity for direct knowledge, in understanding through analysis by fine distinctions between terms, and in the elimination of paradoxes, both in logic and life. The Professor, again roughly speadcing, represents Hegeliainism, a view based on an optimistic belief in die capacity of reason to unify all oppositions and to overcome, through a higher syndiesis, the fundamentally paradoxical nature of all phenomena, including life itself. Thus, at die level of formal logic and ontology, the Professor amd the Pupil aire diametrically opposed, united only in their uncritical reliatnce upon a method of reason. This philosophical opposition is in turn correlated with a psycho-physical opposition: the Professor is male, old, retiring, and initially lifeless; the Pupil is female, young, forwaurd, amd initiadly vivacious. The confrontation of the two embodied philosophical/ psychological principles over die matter of arithmetic makes dieir opposition manifest and demonstrates, for the first time in the play, die utter inability of bodi philosophical traditions to maintain a grip on reality. This confrontation is also a struggle, one which the fresh, straightforward, vital Pupil begins with great success. She is "magnificent" in addition, and claims she can "count to infinity" — an ability which would vindicate her confident , optimistic belief in man's mental capacities, but an ability, nevertheless, which is logically impossible to possess, since "infinity" is not the name of a particulatrly large number, ais she seems to think. Her claim to understand reveals her as limited and ignorant of the deeper and paradoxical nature of her subject, and thus as in need of further, more abstract lessons. "One must also be able to subtract," die Professor...


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