“Gnostic thinking takes us to a privileged ontological realm: the state of perfection that precedes actualization. That which is yet to be born — be it the world, a person, a piece of furniture or a piece of writing like this one — may be nothing, but at this stage it is at its utmost. Its nothingness is fuller and richer than any ordinary existence. To fall into existence is to enter time, and with time comes decay, aging and death. Modern proponents of this idea are hard to come by, but the Romanian-born French philosopher E.M. Cioran is certainly one. For Cioran, who died in 1995, there was something incomparably worse than death — ‘the catastrophe of birth,’ and the ‘fall in time’ that comes with it. In his book The Trouble With Being Born, Cioran maps out the vast unfolding of nothingness that preceded coming into existence.” (Costica Bradatan)
The New York Times (“The Opinion Pages”), 17 September, 2022
Have you heard the story of the architect from Shiraz who designed the world’s most beautiful mosque? No one had ever conjured up such a design. It was breathtakingly daring yet well-proportioned, divinely sophisticated, yet radiating a distinctly human warmth. Those who saw the plans were awe-struck.
Famous builders begged the architect to allow them to erect the mosque; wealthy people came from afar to buy the plans; thieves devised schemes to steal them; powerful rulers considered taking them by force. Yet the architect locked himself in his study, and after staring at the plans for three days and three nights, burned them all.
The architect couldn’t stand the thought that the realized building would have been subject to the forces of degradation and decay, eventual collapse or destruction by barbarian hordes. During those days and nights in his study he saw his creation profaned and reduced to dust, and was terribly unsettled by the sight. Better that it remain perfect. Better that it was never built.
The story is a fable, but its main idea — that a thing’s ideal state is before it comes into existence, that it is better to not be born — is equal parts terrifying and uncanny, especially today, when progress and productivity are practically worshiped. And it evokes a philosophical insight with ancient roots that is still worth investigating.
“The world,” we read in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, “came about through a mistake.” The demiurge who made it “wanted to create it imperishable and immortal,” but eventually he “fell short of attaining his desire, for the world never was imperishable, nor, for that matter, was he who made the world.” The Gnostics believed nonexistence to be a mark of perfection, and coming into being a form of degradation.
Basilides, one of the most intriguing figures of early Gnosticism, believed that the highest attribute of divinity is its inexistence. By his own account, Basilides was a theologian of the “nonexistent God”; he referred to God as “he who is not,” as opposed to the maker of the world, trapped in existence and time.
Gnostic thinking takes us to a privileged ontological realm: the state of perfection that precedes actualization. That which is yet to be born — be it the world, a person, a piece of furniture or a piece of writing like this one — may be nothing, but at this stage it is at its utmost. Its nothingness is fuller and richer than any ordinary existence. To fall into existence is to enter time, and with time comes decay, aging and death.
Modern proponents of this idea are hard to come by, but the Romanian-born French philosopher E.M. Cioran is certainly one. For Cioran, who died in 1995, there was something incomparably worse than death — “the catastrophe of birth,” and the “fall in time” that comes with it. In his book “The Trouble With Being Born,” Cioran maps out the vast unfolding of nothingness that preceded coming into existence.
“I am lured only by what precedes me,” he writes, by “the numberless moments when I was not: the non-born.” From that perspective, he looks at the world with new eyes, and gains a deeper understanding of himself: “I have never taken myself for a being. A noncitizen, a marginal type, a nothing who exists only by the excess, by the superabundance of his nothingness.”
Cioran was a man of unusual tastes. He took a liking to the Thracians because they “wept over the newborn,” and to the Gnostic sect of Bogomils, who, “in order to justify God, held Satan responsible for the infamy of Creation.”
All of this raises an obvious question: Why do anything? Why multiply the cosmic failure, the “infamy of creation”?
Idleness, as we know, has a bad rap in Western culture, but it can be a philosophical experience in its own right. Bertrand Russell wrote a long essay in praise of it, and Oscar Wilde thought that “to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world” as well as the most intellectual. The great, consummate idlers of literature (Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov or Melville’s Bartleby) are figures of metaphysical quest: They exemplify ways of being human with unusual complexity.
Idleness, then, reveals an experience of nothingness. While nothingness tends to occupy a central position in Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Taoism, we in the West typically shun it; after all, one of the most characteristic branches of Western philosophy is ontology, the study of that which exists.
Yet, even if we do not choose to embrace nothingness, nothingness itself may choose to embrace us. It may not be that we don’t have anything to do, or that we’re bored, or that we would rather do it later, but just that we don’t see the point of it all. In our idleness we intuit a cosmic meaninglessness, which comes along with the realization that, with every action, we get only more entangled in the universal farce.
Perhaps the most intriguing form of idleness is one nearly all of us are intimately familiar with: procrastination. Idleness is difficult to find in a pure state. Indeed, in a certain sense, it eludes us because, at its most radical, idleness tends to devour its devotees (again, Oblomov and Bartleby). But procrastination is a different business altogether: It is not only more available, but also more dynamic, just as the procrastinator is a more dramatic figure than the idler, who is as ascetic and immobile as a pillar saint.
The drama of procrastination comes from its split nature. Just like the architect from Shiraz, the procrastinator is smitten by the perfect picture of that which is yet to be born; he falls under the spell of all that purity and splendor. What he is beholding is something whole, uncorrupted by time, untainted by the workings of a messed-up world. At the same time, though, the procrastinator is fully aware that all that has to go. No sooner does he get a glimpse of the perfection that precedes actualization than he is doomed to become part of the actualization process himself, to be the one who defaces the ideal and brings into the world a precarious copy, unlike the architect who saves it by burning the plans.
The procrastinator contemplates his deed and realizes all its future imperfection, but — fallen creature, “man of the world,” part of the “infamy of Creation” that he is — he must do it. The procrastinator is both contemplator and man of action, which is the worst thing to be, and which is tearing him apart.
What procrastination betrays is above all an anxiety of creation: It pains us unbearably to realize that, for all our good intentions, we are agents of degradation, that instead of creating something that stays whole and incorruptible, we by our very doing make it “perishable and mortal,” in the words of the Gnostic author of the Gospel of Philip. Procrastination and mourning are tied tightly together: for to procrastinate is to mourn the precariousness of your creation even before you bring it into the world.
We should perhaps spend more time dwelling on the rich virtuality that precedes the fall into existence. That is, after all, what true contemplation must be about: a commerce with the irreality of things, a learned habit to see them from the privileged perspective of their pre- and nonexistence. Rather than get caught up in the misleading appearance of the material world, we transport ourselves back to a moment when the world, with all its holes and imperfections, hasn’t happened yet.