“Encounters with the void” (E.M. Cioran)

The Hudson Review, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring, 1970), pp. 37-48

Transl. by Frederick Brown

THE MORE WE PONDER Buddha’s last exhortation: “Death is inherent in all compound things. Work relentlessly for your salvation”-the more we are disturbed by the impossibility of feeling ourselves an aggregate, a transitory, if not fortuitous combination of elements. We can conceive ourselves thus easily enough in the abstract; but concretely we experience physical revulsion, as if gagging on some indigestible evidence. Until such time as we have conquered this organic reaction, we shall continue to suffer that bane, essentially a jinx, which is the appetite for existence. We unmask things and stigmatize them with the name of appearances, but to no purpose, for we admit automatically that they conceal being. We will cling to anything sooner than tear ourselves free from this fascination which lies at the source of our acts and very nature, from this primordial effulgence which blinds us to the non-reality inherent in all things. I am a “being” metaphorically; if I were one in fact, I should remain one forever, and death, devoid of meaning, would cease to hold sway over me. “Work relentlessly for your salvation”-in other words, do not forget that you are a fugitive assemblage, a compound merely waiting to come undone. Indeed, salvation would have no meaning unless we were provisional, to an absurd degree; if there existed in us the slightest factor of duration, we would long ago have been saved or doomed, in either case exempt from questing, from horizons. If deliverance matters, then our unreality is an authentic boon.

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We should strip being of all its attributes and no longer regard it as a crutch, as the locus of all our attachments, the eternal, reassuring dead-end, the most firmly rooted of our prejudices, the one most successfully bred into us. We are accomplices of being, or what we assume to be such, for there is no being, only imitations of it. Even if there were, we should nonetheless have to disengage ourselves from it, extirpate it, considering that whatever is evolves into a force of subjection, and an impediment. Let us confer on others the status of shadows; in so doing, we shall separate ourselves from them the more easily. If we are mad enough to believe that they actually exist, we lay ourselves open to unspeakable disappointments. Let us be cautious enough to recognize that whatever befalls us, every event, every relationship, is inessential, and that if knowledge exists, its purpose should be to disclose the advantage of moving among ghosts.

Thought, too, is a prejudice and an impediment. It liberates only at the outset, when it enables us to sever certain bonds; afterward, it can only absorb our energy and paralyze our impulses to go free. The happiness one experiences in suspending it offers sufficient proof that it can be of no help whatever. Just like desire, to which it bears a family resemblance, it feeds on its own substance and takes pleasure in asserting itself, multiplying itself; it can occasionally lean toward the truth, but sheer fussing is its typical employment: we think out of liking for thought, as we desire out of liking for desire. Both are a fever in the midst of fictions, an over-exertion inside non-knowing. He who knows has risen above the fables perpetrated by desire and thought, he emerges from the current, he no longer acquiesces in sham. Thinking partakes of the bottomless illusion which alike breeds and devours itself, anxious to perpetuate and to consume itself; thinking is a competitor of delirium. In so much fever, only our pauses make any sense, the moments in which we halt to catch our breath: the experience of the void-which is tantamount to the sum of these pauses, these intervals-implies the temporary suppression of desire, for it is desire that plunges us into non-knowing, misleads us, and goads us to project being into everything round about.

The void enables us to lay waste the idea of being without itself falling into the rubble-it thus survives an onslaught which would spell the destruction of any other idea. Actually, it is not an idea at all but the agent which helps us abolish ideas. Every idea represents one more chain: the mind, if it means to achieve withdrawal, must disencumber itself of them, and of beliefs as well. In this we shall succeed only by lifting ourselves above the operations of thought, for so long as thought functions and rages, it camouflages the depths of the void, which come into view directly the fever of mind, of desire, abates.

Since all our beliefs are intrinsically shallow, rooted in appearances, it follows that they exist, indiscriminately, on the same level, in the same measure of unreality. We are so constituted as to live with them, we are compelled to: they form the ingredients of our normal, daily malediction. That is why, when at length we see them for what they are and brush them off, we enter the totally unfamiliar, our mind in an expansive state which makes everything else, by comparison, seem pale, episodic, including this very malediction. Our limits, if any remain, recede. The void-the self without self-amounts to the abolition of that adventure called the “I,” it is being without any trace of being, a blessed engulfment, an incomparable disaster.

(The danger lies in making the void a substitute for being, thereby diverting it from its crucial function, which is to sabotage the mechanism of attachment. But if it, too, becomes an object of attachment, then would it not have been better to remain satisfied with being and its retinue of illusions? To undo our bonds, we must, in future, refrain from adhering to anything whatever, anything but the nothing of freedom.)… [PDF]