“Consciousness… the dagger in the flesh.” An essay on Cioran

by Awet Moges, December 14, 2010


After 7 years, I was burned out by philosophy, yet I continued to haunt the philosophy section in search for anything radical and profound. Amidst the expected titles commonly found at any bookstore, sat A Short History of Decay. I pulled it off the shelf in the faint hopes of killing time until the cigar shop opened in 20 minutes. After a couple of hours disappeared savoring the salacious prose, I begrudgingly closed the book and hurried to the checkout counter, cackling in glee in the wonderful fortune of uncovering a new thinker that spoke blasphemous music to my eyes.

Within a year, I had acquired the remaining books of Emil Cioran, and devoured them with extreme relish. In Cioran not only had I found a thinker after my heart, but also a kindred spirit who experienced chronic insomnia for 7 years, and poured the results of long white nights on page after page. I myself experienced severe insomnia where I could not tell the difference between being awake or asleep, and nothing ever felt real. When I go to sleep, my consciousness is at rest, and I begin a new life the next day. But when I stayed awake all night, there was no interruption of being conscious. No new life. In the morning I’m exactly the same as I was last night. Some of his writings cut cleanly through the flesh to the bone:

“…Insomnia is a vertiginous lucidity that can convert paradise itself into a place of torture… the hours without sleep are at bottom an interminable rejection of thought by thought itself.”1

A genius of apothegms who also doubles as a “monster of despair,” Cioran (1911 – 1995) remains the best-kept secret of intellectuals today. A self-exiled Romanian who wrote his best work in French, Cioran has carved a niche on the bookshelves as a “fanatic without convictions” with a wry wit and stylized prose that savages rationality with trenchant irony. First, I will highlight existentialist elements in Cioran’s works to argue that he belongs in the canon of existentialism. Then I will expand on boredom and insomnia, the major concepts that pervades Cioran’s books. Finally, I will juxtapose Cioran’s thoughts against those of the other existentialists.

For existentialism

Many of the modern themes that recur in Cioran’s work come from the garden of existentialism: despair, absurdity, alienation, irrationality of existence, the need of self awareness. His gnomic tone oscillates between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer – Cioran explodes with the lyricism of the former in his early works (Tears & Saints, On the Height of Despair), and gravitates towards the depraved cynicism of the latter in his mature works (A Short History of Decay, Temptation to Exist, Fall in Time, Drawn & Quartered, The Trouble with being Born). However, there remain deep differences: Cioran refrains from heroic postulations like the Ubermensch and Amor Fati of Nietzsche, or the metaphysical speculations and the slightly hypocritical recommendation of resignation of Schopenhauer.

The decline of system building in philosophy in the early 19th century opened the way for new forms of discourse: ideologues and the reactionaries. Ideologues wrote anti-philosophical systems in the form of human sciences. Reactionaries on the other hand were a new kind of philosophizing that took autobiographical forms: personal, aphoristic, lyrical and anti-systematic. Cioran is the best example of this new way of writing of the 20th century.2

I think it is legitimate to include Cioran with the other existentialists because he has carried out the premises of Existentialism proper to its logical, if outrageous, conclusion. His early nihilistic work, On the Heights of Despair, deals with despair and lucid suffering in a way that evokes the bitter ravings of the Underground Man from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Written under the duress of suicidal insomnia, Despair embraces suffering, resignation, knowledge as sickness, and the absolute subjective experience.

In a nutshell, Cioran’s early philosophy is an “absolute lyricism” where his lucidity allows him to “discover and mercilessly expose the hollowness of all philosophical systems.”3 The opening essay of Despair, titled “On Being Lyrical” Cioran argues that one is being lyrical when “one’s life beats to an essential rhythm and the experience is so intense that it synthesizes the entire meaning of one’s personality. What is unique and specific in us is then realized in a form so expressive that the individual rises onto a universal plane.”4 One of the earmarks of existentialism is its reduction of philosophy to biography, and lyricism is an effective prose.5

Cioran’s relentlessly self-conscious writing deliberately opposes civilized writing where organic fears cannot be canceled by abstract constructs. Similar to Nietzsche’s distinction between the Dionysian and the Socratic person, Cioran privileges the organic, suffering thinker over the philosopher or the abstract man: “Out of the shadow of the abstract man, who thinks for the pleasure of thinking, emerges the organic man, who thinks because of a vital imbalance, and who is beyond science and art.”6 The organic thinker transforms his passions into obsessions. “I like thought which preserves a whiff of flesh and blood, and I prefer a thousand times an idea rising from sexual tension or nervous depression to an empty abstraction.”7

As Cioran matured, his nascent skepticism ripened and, in mercilessly demolition of his earlier idols, he criticized language itself. The main focus of Temptation to Exist was the complete severance between language and reality, and that shares much in common with Sartre’s concept of nausea.8 The notion that concepts in language correspond to objects of reality is the foundation of western thought. However, Cioran instead saw language as a “sticky symbolic net,” an infinitely self-referential circular recession that distanced people from reality.

Cioran expanded this focus in Fall in Time, where language exacerbates our metaphors for experience and gets in the way of being truly alive in the moment. Split off from originality, we can no longer exploit what made us different from animals:

“Consciousness is not lucidity. Lucidity, man’s monopoly, represents the severance process between the mind and the world; it is necessarily consciousness of consciousness, and if we are to distinguish ourselves from the animals, it is lucidity alone which must receive credit or the blame.”9

Thus, language has become an ouroboros, a vicious circle that signifies nothing but itself and has become the ultimate condition for man: “all speech hyperbole, all prose rhetorical, all poetry prosedemic, and all thought proleptic.”10 It is then obvious that a stylist like Cioran was too elusive to be frozen and packaged in convenient categories, as well as too complex and precise due to a decisive style that both emphasized and contradicted the ambiguity of his message. We can only highlight themes instead.

Boredom / insomnia

Throughout his work, Cioran never tires of boredom as a topic, which is paradoxically, an inexhaustible source of creativity, and a preliminary to his fatally incurable insomnia. Boredom is a baseline of “bare human existence” that demonstrates how we are all “embedded in time.” Once we lose the comfortable illusions that shield us from the effects of experiencing the passage of time, boredom sets in and smears everything into undifferentiated blobs of drab grey. “Life is more and less than boredom, but it is in boredom and by boredom that we discern what life is worth”11 Boredom for existentialists is a fundamental mood that emphasizes the finitude of existence, and both Heidegger and Sartre claim boredom is the naked access to being. 12

If you’re not in pain, or happily distracted by some goal you’ve given yourself, you’re left alone with life at its bare minimum. This mundane existence consists of absolutely nothing interesting, and nothing to do. “Boredom will reveal to things to us: our body and the nothingness of the world.”13 In order to escape this experience of nothingness, we forget that we are merely physical husks and hurry to busy ourselves in any activity. For Cioran, boredom is one extreme swing of the pendulum; once there, we are compelled in the opposite direction, desperate to find anything to paper over the emptiness. “Life is our solution to boredom. Melancholy, sadness, despair, terror, and ecstasy all grow out of boredom’s thick trunk.”14

“However, even if something interesting or satisfying is found, it will eventually inspire feelings of futility and meaninglessness, and boredom returns with a vengeance. “No matter what you do, the starting point is boredom, and the end is self destruction.”15

The first aphorism of The Trouble with Being Born: “3 in the morning. I realize this second, then this one, then the next: I draw up a balance sheet for every minute. And why all this? Because I was born.”16 Everything that follows is framed by that experience: we are born into time, and we only realize that, once we take a step back from our mundane activity, time is the baseline of all experience. “What should I do? Work for a social and political system, make a girl miserable? Hunt for weaknesses in philosophical systems, fight for moral and aesthetic ideals? It’s all too little.”17 There are experiences that amplify the dull echo boredom resonates through life, such as insomnia. It is true that boredom isn’t identical to insomnia, but they both are pure access to the bare flow of time. Although Cioran focused on many other themes of existentialism with ennui, solitude, infirmity, and suicide, I think insomnia is his muse, and the key concept of his oeuvre.

Cioran is probably the exemplar of insomnia, a walking poster boy of insomnia, having suffered it throughout his life. He even claims to not have slept for 50 years! In an interview with Michael Jakob, Cioran claimed his insomnia was the “greatest experience” of his life, for it was his defining insignia and his intellectual crucifixion.18 The only solution Cioran found for his severe insomnia was exhausting himself with long bicycle rides throughout the French countryside.

While his books are merely autobiographies masquerading as analyses of decay, they explore the very personal fact of insomnia as a “form of heroism..[that] transforms each new day into a combat lost in advance.”19 The early Cioran regarded insomnia as a noble affliction, a disease of hyper-consciousness. The later Cioran glorified it: “To save the world ‘grandeur’ from officialdom, we should use it only apropos of insomnia or heresy.”20 Cioran found sleeplessness instructive, in which it helped undo all certainties. But insomnia is hardly ever pleasant. Anyone who’s stricken with it tries their damnedest to find a cure. Had pure conscious existence been a good in itself, then we would hardly be in a hurry to cure insomnia. If consciousness was truly pleasant we would regard insomniacs as fortunate, or even sacred.

“You will suffer from everything, and to excess: the winds will seem gales; every touch a dagger; smiles, slaps; trifles, cataclysms. Waking may come to an end, but its light survives within you; one does not see in the dark with impunity, one does not gather its lessons without danger; there are eyes which can no longer learn anything from the sun, and souls afflicted by nights from which they will never recover.”21

In opposition to Aristotle, Cioran claims that we are the animal who cannot sleep: “Why call [man] a rational animal when other animals are equally reasonable? But there is not another animal in the entire creation that wants to sleep but yet cannot.”22 At other times, Cioran regarded insomnia as a demon:

“To discern in the depths of oneself a bad principle that is not powerful enough to show itself in daylight or weak enough to keep still, a kind of insomniac demon, obsessed by all the evil it has dreamed of, by all the horrors it has not perpetrated.”23

Other philosophers argued that boredom proved that existence is inherently miserable,24 and Cioran appropriated this argument for insomnia. Given this, insomnia can also be seen as the secret of tapping into the pure feeling of time.

“Just as ecstasy purifies you of the particular and the contingent, leaving nothing except light and darkness, so insomnia kills off the multiplicity and diversity of the world, leaving you prey to your private obsessions. What strangely enchanted tunes gush forth during those sleepless nights!”25

At the end of A Short History of Decay, Cioran suggests that insomnia is an induction to a secret society of thinkers: “Each night was like the others, each night was eternal. And I felt one with all those who cannot sleep, with all those unknown brothers. Like the corrupt and the fanatical, I had a secret; like them I belonged to a clan to which everything could be excused, given, sacrificed: the clan of the sleepless.”26

Not only did Cioran survive insomnia, he took advantage of his conquest by making something of it. “When you waken with a start and long to get back to sleep, you must dismiss every impulse of thought, any shadow of an idea. For it is the formulated idea, the distinct idea, that is sleep’s worst enemy.”27 Instead of going back to sleep, he got up and poured his thoughts on paper, in essays and aphorisms.

Against existentialists

Despite the preceding claims, Cioran is not a conventional existentialist. He often questions the validity of existence, even though he employs existential themes, and unleashes a bottomless pessimistic streak that would blanch even Schopenhauer. Cioran said most of us, throughout our lives, attempt to “keep deep down inside a certitude superior to all the others: life has no meaning, it cannot have any such thing.”28 Institutions like education or religion, systems of thought like philosophy or science, works of expression like art or music are all ways of masking this inescapable truth, for they all seek to divert our attention from its shattering impact. So, how then can we live with it?

Contra Schopenhauer, Cioran says we cannot escape agonizing ourselves with the awareness of the malady or mortification or curse of our existence. Our inquiring and scrutinizing mind give us no peace; only those living in frivolity and fabrication can avoid the constant agony. Observe your happy and content friends, and you’ll draw no other conclusion. Once skepticism or nihilism takes prominence, this is the inevitable disease that follows: the symptoms, the existential feeling of this crisis of life. On the other hand, once Nietzsche freed the passions and imagination from subservience to reason and by restoring art to its rightful place, the universe became tolerable, even romantic.

Contra Albert Camus, Cioran says we all should indeed kill ourselves. That is the only consistent way to accept the absurdity of our lives. Yet we foolishly aggravate the absurdity by cowardly refusing to commit mass suicide. Whoever attempts suicide has that flush of certainty that release is imminent, but it won’t because absurdity lasts until the very final moment, and if the absurdity isn’t followed through to its conclusion, the ensuing shame of being a failed suicide is even worse.

Contra Sartre, Cioran says “the intoxication of freedom is only a shudder within a fatality, the form of [our] fate being no less regulated than that of a sonnet or a star.”29 Freedom of will is another self-deception, an artifice of modernity that seeks to invert the void within ourselves. For people born only to experience the crushing inevitabilities of disappointment, suffering and death, a freedom defiantly thrown against the void is no answer at all. We are stuck between two irreconcilables – life and idea – and this ambiguity becomes our second nature. Thus, we suppose ourselves free, above and beyond the laws of nature or the mind.

From “spermatozoon to sepulcher” we are pawns of a taunting fate that selects for some good fortune and others for bad by chance.30 Each life is a useless hyphen between birth and death. As evolutionary biology and scientific cosmology show, Homo sapiens is one more organic species doomed like the rest to extinction, and a mere fleeting flutter in the universe’s surge to heat death. Much like Sartre’s nausea, Cioran acknowledges a revolting disgust surging up from such realizations: “that negative superfluity which spares nothing… [and] shows us the inanity of life.”31

Cioran keeps lacerating the reader until she confesses her beliefs are tired myths, and in his remorseless destruction of such expired myths, he enriches and edifies the reader. When philosophy itself was young, Plato needed youth and beauty to advance the cause of philosophy, or he would have dismissed Socrates as just another sophist. He needed a martyr myth, because creation always involves destruction – whatever is introduced as new needs a martyr, especially when it promises change. Nowadays, philosophy has decayed and expired, and is in dire need for new myths and new martyrs to resurrect a new beauty, like a phoenix out of the ashes. Cioran, in his paradoxical way, has ignited the flames with his own intellectual crucifixion.

Works Cited

Cioran, Emil. Pe culmile disperarii. Bucharest: Fundatia Pentru Literatura si Arta “Regele Carol II,” 1934. Translated by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston as On the Height of Despair. (1996) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
__________. Lacrimi si sfinti. Bucharest: Humanitas (1937). Translated by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston as Tears & Saints. (1998) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
__________. Précis de décomposition. Paris: Gallimard, 1949.Translated by Richard Howard, Richard as A Short History of Decay. (1998) New York: Arcade Publishing.
__________. La Tentation d’exister. Paris: Gallimard, 1956.translated by Richard Howard as The Temptation to Exist. (1998) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
__________. La Chute dans le temps. Paris: Gallimard, 1964.Translated by Richard Howard as The Fall in Time. (1970) Quadrangle Books.
__________. Ecartèlement. Paris: Gallimard, 1979.Translated by Richard Howard as Drawn & Quartered. (1998) New York: Arcade Publishing.
__________. De l’inconvénient d’être né. Paris: Gallimard, 1973. Translated by Richard Howard as The Trouble with being Born. (1998) New York: Arcade Publishing.
__________. Aveux et anathèmes. Paris: Gallimard, 1987.Translated by Richard Howard as Anathemas and Admirations. (1998) New York: Arcade Publishing.

1. On the Heights of Despair, Preface to the French translation
2. Sontag, Susan. Introduction to Temptation to Exist, p. 11
3. Zarifopol-Johnston, Ilinca. Introduction to On the Heights of Despair, p. xviii
4. On the Heights of Despair, p. 4
5. Nietzsche claims that all philosophy is the biography of the philosopher.
6. On the Heights of Despair, p. 22
7. On the Heights of Despair, p. 22
8. Sartre’s concept of the experience of absolute contingency, presented rather vividly in his seminal work, Nausea. For Sartre, nausea stresses the absurdity of contingency, where objects lose their labels or labels fail to attach themselves to objects. Words and objects are divided, and the object becomes strange, dense, and absurd. The experience of nausea leads to the realization that labels, words, are all human inventions that have very little to do with existence, other than practical purposes.
9. Fall in Time, p. 133
10. Newman, Charles. Introduction to Fall in Time, p. 13
11. Drawn & Quartered, p. 139
12. Heidegger says boredom “reveals what-is-in totality.” In other words, boredom removes the normal focus and cares about particular beings and diffuses one’s awareness into a sense of Being-as-a-whole being revealed. For Sartre, profound boredom is a special type of nausea where it provides an access to the very being of things, and leads to the awareness of oneself as the source of meaning.
13. Tears & Saints, p. 88
14. Ibid, p. 89
15. Ibid, p. 86
16. The Trouble with Being Born, p. 3
17. On the Heights of Despair, p. 43 (emphasis by author)
18. “What is that one crucifixion compared to the daily kind any insomniac endures?” Trouble with being Born, p. 14
19. Cioran to Gabriel Liiceanu, Continents, p. 92
20. The Trouble with Being Born, p. 81
21. A Short History of Decay, p. 170
22. On the Heights of Despair, p. 85
23. Drawn and Quartered, p. 123
24. Arthur Schopenhauer.
25. On the Heights of Despair, p. 83
26. A Short History of Decay, p. 169 – 170
27. Anathemas and Admirations, p. 199
28. A Short History of Decay, p. 105
29. A Short History of Decay, p. 69
30. Ibid, p. 46
31. A Short History of Decay, p. 12