“E.M. Cioran: The Delusions of our Sadness” (S.C. Hickman)

DARK CHEMISTRY – Philosophy, Art, and Ecology at the crossroads of Speculative Realism, November 11th, 2010

“However much I have frequented the mystics, deep down I have always sided with the Devil; unable to equal him in power, I have tried to be worthy of him, at least, in insolence, acrimony, arbitrariness, and caprice.”
       – E.M. Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations

On rereading Edmund White’s essay on E.M. Cioran’s book Anathemas and Admirations I was reminded of my fascination with the power of the aphorism. White being his usual ironic self spoke of the late Cioran as “a Romanian who’s lived in France since 1937, admires Buddhism of the most unconsoling variety, has contemplated suicide for decades, esteems extremists, fanatics and eccentrics of all sorts and has instituted vertigo into his daily life. Instead of accumulating wisdom, he has shed certainties. Instead of reaching out to touch someone, he has fastidiously cultivated his exemplary solitude.”

He is another member of that small  band of epicurean pessimists who will – as Dylan Thomas, said, “not go gentle into that good night”

Cioran exemplified the dictates of Schopenhauer’s musings when he said: “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.” That other disciple of suffering, Friedrich Nietzsche said it this way: “The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that it is this discipline alone which has created every elevation of mankind hitherto? That tension of the soul in misfortune which cultivates its strength, its terror at the sight of great destruction, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpretating, exploiting misfortune, and whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed upon it- has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”

In 1935 Cioran’s mother is reputed to have told him that if she had known he was going to be so unhappy she would have aborted him. Later on in response to this incident he told a friend “I’m simply an accident. Why take it all so seriously?” In statements like this one has to laugh out loud. Maybe this is what Nietzshe meant when he said: “Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” In his book, The Trouble with being Born, Cioran said of suicide: “It’s not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.” The subtle humor of such aphorisms is not for the feint of heart.

A Cosmopolitan of the Mind, Cioran felt that “a self-respecting man is a man without a country.”  By this he meant “we inhabit a language rather than a country.”  This goes back to his Buddhist and Gnostic reflections on Illusion: “Illusion begets and sustains the world; we do not destroy one without destroying the other. Which is what I do every day. An apparently ineffectual operation, since I must begin all over again the next day.”1 The character Constantin Constantius in Soren Kierkegaard’s, Repetition, once said of repetition that it does not “have the sadness of recollection—it has the blissful security of the moment.”

There are two Greek theories of repetition that seem to be appropriate to this formulation:

The first is that of motion, actually, the impossibility of motion, which the Eleatics, notably Zeno and Parmenides, affirmed. It was asserted that motion is impossible, because if a man wants to go from point A to point B, he must first traverse a midway point—call it X—to get there. However, he cannot get to X unless he first gets to a midway point between A and X, and so forth. This reason is applied ad infinitum. Therefore motion is impossible, an illusion. Kierkegaard reminds us that one Greek sought to refute this merely by pacing back and forth without uttering a word.

The second Greek concept is Plato’s idea of recollection, which has to do with knowledge acquisition. In the Phaedo we find Socrates discoursing on the acquisition of knowledge as a recollection of things from a previous incarnation. Ostensibly, this idea is put forth by Socrates as a way to comfort his friends. That is, if a man can learn anything he must have already known something about what he is going to learn or he would not be equipped to learn anything. And if he has known something without having been taught it (in this life), he must have learned it before his birth. And if the soul existed prior to birth it stands to reason that it survives death, and thus his friends have no cause for grief. This innate and prior knowledge is triggered into consciousness by sensory input. Plato is striving to work beyond a two-fold paradox. Namely, if a person does not know something, he cannot learn it since he knows nothing about it. If, on the other hand, he knows it, he does not need to learn it. Plato uses recollection to get beyond this problematical hurdle. This theory is also pursued in the Meno and the Philebus.

Recollection is confined to motionlessness and to the past. Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition, on the other hand, is in constant movement and is connected to the ethical future.

In a fragment of his early posthumously published work, Book of Delusions, Cioran asks “Have you ever felt the beginning of motion, have you ever been tormented by the first departure of the world from itself? Have you ever touched the first pure shiver of motion, the prime ecstasy of becoming, the initial vortex of time?” This movement in time is the key to Cioran’s dispersion, his aphoristic energy; the feeling of being cut off within Time, divorced from any redemption or transcendence is there from the beginning: “The dramatic moment of the individual existence culminates always in the struggle with time. This struggle, however, is without escape, because the being touched by temporality, once having conquered eternity, inevitably regrets time.”6 It is this duplicitous love of life that leads us into that pit of endless trepidation:  “The only thing one can love is life itself, which I detest. It is absolutely impossible to get rid of time, without getting rid of life at the same time.” [+]