“Loneliness and Politics with E.M. Cioran” (Andrew Winer & Clancy Martin)

Tin House, August 10, 2017

We met outside an inauspicious two-story yellow brick apartment building on Minnesota Avenue, in Washington, D.C., not more than a few miles from The White House. It was a cold winter day and our breath made clouds in the air. Cars honked on the busy street and, because it was freezing and the light had that crystalline quality of bright sunshine on a winter’s day, we felt optimistic. It was good to be in each other’s company. Andrew had flown in from Los Angeles the day before and Clancy had arrived from Kansas City just that morning. We turned this way and that, looking for Cioran. He was supposed to meet us on the street. He had told us that he’d be returning from walking his dog at ten ‘o clock—“our daily walk”—and that we should catch him outside his building. We’d arrived a few minutes early.

Then we saw a child sitting alone in a car seat in a parked SUV. We looked around to see who was responsible for the child. There was a loud knocking sound. We looked again, more carefully; sitting next to the child was Cioran, in a red raincoat; he was in fact feeding the baby with a bottle; he waved for us to climb into the front seats (the doors were open). The SUV was running and warm; it smelled of car leather and sour milk. A large, off-white, dirty poodle wearing a yellow bandanna barked loudly from the very back of the SUV while we spoke.

*

Clancy: Are you as disappointed as we are, Emil, in the current political situation here?  You don’t seem very perturbed…. I’m anxious, enthusiastic, amused and terrified by turns. In short it’s entertaining, if nothing else, but it does feel like the end of the world is coming, which we all secretly hope for, as Murakami says somewhere.

EMC: Though we can endlessly debate the destiny of revolutions, political or otherwise, a single feature is common to them all, a single certainty: the disappointment they generate in all who have believed in them with some fervor.j

Andrew: I believe he’s calling us believers, Clancy.

EMC: The tragic aspect of the political universe resides in that hidden force which leads every movement to deny itself, to betray its original inspiration, and to corrupt itself as it confirms itself, as it advances. This is because in politics, as in everything, we fulfill ourselves only upon our own ruins.

Andrew: Not to be too tautological, but can we go from the political to the personal here? Because this idea that we fulfill ourselves at our own peril is so at odds with what the culture is constantly telling us that I’m guessing it’s probably not just an idea but a truth, an insight! I have only to look at what it can feel like to finish—successfully—something I really care about. For example, a book. I’m not talking about the sense of satisfaction that we can experience immediately upon completion of our task, but rather what comes next, and next, and next; I’m speaking about disappointment. Clancy, are you familiar with what I’m describing here?

Clancy: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpcohe used to say that we should march straight into disappointment. Maybe all of our efforts—the books we write, say, or the relationships we try to perfect and constantly fail at—are in some way measured by the disappointment. Of course, on that line of thinking, our current president isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, since he is such a huge disappointment.

Andrew: Right, and it’s enough to make me say, a la Emil, that creating and finishing something that is huge and that requires enormous personal resources—something on the order of a book—has some of the nature of leading a revolution, minus all the killing of course: one has to believe in it, to have faith in it just in order to sustain the kind of massive effort required, often at the expense of so much else (including other people and our obligations to them), and so, when the thing is done, when it has actually been realized, this massive disappointment can be generated in anyone who believed in it—namely the person who created and completed it.

EMC: Revolutions start in order to give a meaning to history . . . intolerance results from a hypothesis that has generated into a certitude.

Andrew: Exactly! I mean look at what a work of art is. In our struggle to give meaning to where there may be none (in human affairs, in culture, in the historical and the social), we sometimes transform an inspiration, a hypothesis, into a certitude—into a book, a work of art. And then—

Clancy: And then we can’t tolerate having been successful. You succeed and you have a breakdown. You find a way to undermine yourself.

Andrew: It’s as if the universe failed us by granting us the creative efficacy of God, failed us by robbing us of adversity, of resistance, of our Sisyphean status.

Clancy: Because what we find at the end of that completion, that success, is that paradise wasn’t arrived at anyway.

EMC: No paradise unless deep within our being, and somehow in the very heart of the self, the self’s self, and even here, in order to find it, we must have inspected every paradise, past and possible, have loved and hated them with all the clumsiness of fanaticism, scrutinized and rejected them with the competence of disappointment itself.

Andrew: I feel like you’re talking about desire, Emil… [+]