TIN HOUSE, March 22, 2016
This unlikely conversation took place in Santiago del Cuba. We (Andrew and Clancy) were on vacation with our families in Havana when we were invited by two tarot card readers, bluff cigar-smoking local women who spoke French, to meet a “very old crazy Frenchman who tells prophesies,” and who, according to them, scavenged fish and octopi on the bay in that hot, clamorous city on the southeastern side of the island. One of the tarot readers had a nephew there she wanted to visit, and we had a car and an outsize interest in prophets. We looked at each other with excitement: “A Cuban Jodorowsky!” Our wives and children declined to join us.
When at last we found the man on a garbage-strewn beach, he was sitting in filthy clothes on a couch with three legs and no cushions, cooking pencil-sized fish over a fire. His hair white and wild, he looked to be at least a hundred years old, and, casting each other questioning if hopeful glances, we sat down to watch him suck the meat from the bones of the tiny fish, snapping his fingers when he was through with each one. After a time, he began to regale us with stories of Paris, insomnia, the coming apocalypse, and despair—and Andrew, his interest overtaking his impatience, at last asked him: “Have you ever read E.M. Cioran?” “I am Emil Cioran,” the man replied. “Are you from the police? Or are you priests? My father was a priest…” He fell into inchoate babble then, but we opened a beer for him and his lucidity seemed to pick up with the wind. Soon we became convinced that this was, in fact, the great Romanian philosopher—or his ghost come back to life on that desolate bay with the black water at our feet. The conversation lasted long into the night. We have offered just a part of it here . . .
Clancy: Emil, you say that we moderns have discovered hell inside ourselves and that is our good fortune. How could that be lucky?
EMC: What would have become of us if we had only hell’s external and historical representations? Two thousand years of fear would have driven us to suicide. Saint Hildegard’s description of the Last Judgment makes one hate all heavens and hells, and rejoice that they are only subjective visions. Psychology is both our salvation and our superficiality. According to a Christian legend, the world was born when the Devil yawned. For us moderns, the accident of this world is nothing more than a psychological error.
Andrew: Right, and that depresses me on two levels, even as it gets me off the hook for Hell-Hell. If there is indeed an error to our world, if existence is some sort of mistake—or even if it’s only the case that we sometimes experience it that way (as I do)—I want us to take the error very seriously, perhaps even—dare I say it?—sacredly rather than secularly. At the very least, I sometimes hunger for there to be a massive “mistake” that is outside of us, bigger than us; I long for life’s scary cruelty and inexplicable indifference and just general madness to be ontological, cosmic, rather than personal and selfie-ish. What about you, Clancy? I’m desperate to know if you ever have this longing, or even see the situation this way at all.
Clancy: The good fortune, the happy accident, is that having hell inside ourselves gives us, if not control over our hellish situation, the possibility of reconciliation with our hell, and perhaps even the opportunity for liberation from it. In one of The Buddha’s early sutras, he talks about “the two darts”: the first dart is the pain of physical or mental suffering, the pain of birth, old age, sickness and death, the pain of so much of our emotional experience, the pain of our “selfie-narratives.” I remember once, when I was still in the jewelry business, a Swiss watch wholesaler was in my office and he looked at me quietly and said: “What is it, Clancy? Internal dialogue driving you crazy again?” That’s the first dart, which is the internal hell that we’ve represented externally. Our salvation, which is also our psychological error and the world that we all live in, is the second dart: how we respond to the first dart. The second dart is one we throw at ourselves. It is the crying out of protest at the first dart.
EMC: A cry means something only in a created universe. If there is no creator, what is the good of calling attention to yourself?
Andrew: Great—our session has hardly begun and I already feel superficial, trapped in psychology and a meaningless, uncreated world. I feel ashamed!
EMC: The philosopher’s sole merit is that they sometimes felt ashamed of being men. Plato and Nietzsche are exceptions: they were always ashamed. The former wanted to take us out of this world, the latter out of ourselves. Even the saints could learn something from them. Thus the honor of philosophy was saved!
Clancy: Now that is classic Emil. Brilliant. You pick those great antipodes, Plato and Nietzsche, and then take them all the way to their own deepest fears—that they are ashamed of humans and to be human—and then make it their redeeming virtue.
Andrew: Maybe what gives our friend Emil such insight here is that, like Plato and Nietzsche, he seems to know this type of shame so well. In fact, Emil, you hardly seem able to deal with others who haven’t copped to such fears, such shame. And doesn’t shame form one of the foundations of your lifelong, aphoristic slandering of the world—your poetic chastening and chastising of yourself and others, and of God and what he created? What’s so enticing to me—and it’s one of the reasons I keep returning to your writing—is that, in true Nietzschean fashion, you flip it—shame—to a positive! To a strength!
Clancy: In other words: honest enough to be ashamed, admitting that we need to bathe, to clean our consciences, to demand some respite from our self-dissatisfaction. The only hope for the philosopher is that he can force us to admit this about ourselves.
Andrew: That might also serve as an excellent description of your own work, Clancy, it occurs to me—both in your philosophizing about deception and in your fiction. And couldn’t we also say that the only hope for the novelist is that, by exploring the shame in her characters and allowing it to play out dramatically, she can lead us to confront the shame that lies inside of us? One of the things that appeals to me in writers as different as Kafka, James, and Franzen is this sense—one I’m quite familiar with in my own life and writing—that shame is an inescapable trait of being human. Certainly in your own work there’s this longing, beneath the various deception scenarios you write about, to be somehow washed clean. And this brings me back to the second way that what Emil is saying here depresses me: namely, if ours isn’t a created universe, if this accident of the world (as he calls it) or The Problem For And Of Us (as I might call it) is merely viewed as psychological (as it is by the great wash of the West’s secularized), then it naturally follows that this “Hell” of ours can and should be fixed. And so, what was once an irreducible and given problem of existence can now be subjected to all manner of therapeutic nostrums. And here again, the isness of life—in all its former grandeur—gets chopped down to some “relatable” set of problems to solve, or avoid through escapism, and we aren’t called to the larger and more difficult task of confronting that which, in my humble opinion, will forever be beautifully unsolvable. And I’m fully aware, for instance, that for a long time now the novel has trafficked almost exclusively in the psychological, mirroring the culture’s turn away from religious understandings of the self and the self’s place in the world. But there’s a reason that novels that still assumed an essentially religious framework—novels by writers such as Tolstoy, Hugo, and Dostoevsky—still pull on us; and might it have something to do with both the desire to be washed clean that subtly informs your work, Clancy, and this need of ours for some reference point that is outside of our psychologies? But then perhaps I’m being too clingy, too beholden to some idea of magnitude that is, in the end, a result of my own narcissistic desire to situate myself in a matrix of import and significance.
Clancy: We still want to have faith in something bigger than Andrew and Clancy. But maybe the world doesn’t need Clancy or Andrew at all. Maybe even we don’t need ourselves, as we normally think of ourselves (hopes, fears, etc.). Then maybe we wouldn’t need to believe in all of the concepts and labels, in good and evil.
Andrew: If I’m understanding you correctly, Clancy, you’re sort of meeting Cioran’s diagnosis of our modern problem at the psychological level, and—here’s that second dart—suggesting we can, if not solve, then sort of side-step or learn to live with the problem of the “hell inside ourselves” by employing the techniques and understandings of what is often called Buddhist psychology, among them letting go of our attachment to the self and desires. And on the one hand I think I should just hop on your train, which is probably more practical, and probably stands a better chance at providing me with a more peaceful life; but on the other hand I have this strong attachment to attachment—yes, even, pace Buddha, to things and desires and goals. Yet my attachment to these things is not, I would like to believe, for the typical reasons: for example, I don’t hold out that attaining wealth, objects, or goals will necessarily bring me happiness. Rather, for me, it’s a matter of reverence. Why not say that life is Life and dignify that capitalization and italicization with fierce attachment to it? Might it not, in fact, be our obligation to the world of which we alone are fully conscious to have and even cultivate an immense and attached love and longing for the totality of its objects and experiences? You know, I think of a contemporary writer like W.G. Sebald, whose cataloging of things feels as metaphysical as it does material: there’s some larger meaning to the thousand things noticed in one of his novels, a meaning that has something to do with a historical consciousness, yes, but also perhaps with something more mystical. Even if we agree that the significance of Sebald’s work is pretty solidly historical, that would still leave us in the realm of the inexplicable, if we understand history the way Tolstoy does in War and Peace (which is really a way of not understanding it: Tolstoy felt that rationality was ultimately useless in the face of the forces driving history). Returning to the question of how to think of and deal with the hell we find ourselves in, I suppose I’m saying I want the opposite of a selfie-view of it, and therefore the opposite of a therapeutic solution—even the opposite of the solution you seem to be suggesting, Clancy, along the lines of Schopenhauer’s killing the will, his ascetic buy-in that Nietzsche equated with Christianity’s slave morality—and instead I’m advocating for feeling all the pain of having to lose in this life, and, yes, being disappointed with it, too.
EMC: Only one thing matters: learning to be the loser… [+]