“The Patron Saints of Pessimism: Emil Cioran, Friedrich Nietzsche, and other funsters” (Eugene Thacker)

LITERARY HUB, July 19, 2018

If all is for naught, then why bother writing it down? Caught in a vicious circle, ensnared in the logical absurdities of awkward self-awareness. It seems there are one of two options: either speak to this situation, or remain silent. The writer’s failure is that they know they should choose the latter, but cannot help attempting the former. Writers (and readers . . . when there are readers . . . ) console themselves by naming this failure: an apology, a confession, a testimony, a treatise, a history, a biography, a life. But the continual accumulation of that-which-cannot-be-put-into-words always points back to this one basic realization—that, when it comes to human beings, silence is the most adequate form of expression. There are, then, two paths. Ultimately writers dream of taking neither path, leaving all paths for the forest. But it’s just a dream.

The patron saints of pessimism watch over our suffering. Laconic and sullen, they never seem to do a good job at protecting, interceding, or advocating for those who suffer. Perhaps they need us more than we need them. There are patron saints of philosophy, but their stories are not happy ones.

Even in cases where the entire corpus of an author is pessimistic, the project always seems incomplete, as if there was still one more thing to say, one last indictment . . . from Goethe’s sorrowful Werther, to Dostoevsky’s burrowing creature, to Pessoa’s disquiet scribbler; Baudelaire’s spleen and ennui; the mystical pessimism of Huysmans and Strindberg; the stark and unhuman lyricism of Meng Jiao, Georg Trakl, Xavier Villarrutia; the frenetic obfuscations of Sakutaro Hagiwara, Ladislav Klíma, Fyodor Sologub; the haunted and scintillating prose of Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Izumi Kyōka, Clarice Lispector; the misanthropic rigor of Lautréamont’s Maldoror or of Bonaventura’s Nightwatches; the crumbling of reason in Artaud’s The Umbilicus of Limbo or Unica Zürn’s The House of Illnesses. Grumpy old Beckett.

The list quickly expands, soon encompassing the entirety of literature itself, and beyond ( . . . even the great pessimist stand-up comedians). In the end it’s overwhelming; all of literature becomes a candidate. All that remains are singular, anomalous statements, a litany of quotes and citations crammed into arborous fortune cookies read by no one. So I confine myself, somewhat arbitrarily, to pessimist “philosophers,” dubious though this distinction is. But a cursory look at the history of philosophy reveals something quite different. Philosophers that stumble and trip over their own feet. Philosophers that curse themselves. Philosophers that laugh at themselves. Philosophers that abandon philosophy, but still remain “philosophers.”

Emil Cioran

Cioran’s fragments are themselves so fragmented, so shattered (and shattering), that they sometimes seem less than a fragment: more a particle, a speck of dust, the debris of thought.

Cioran published De l’inconvénient d’être né (translated as The Trouble with Being Born) in 1973. It was a time of loss and refusals. A few years before, Cioran’s mother and sister had died. Cioran’s close friend, the playwright Arthur Adamov, committed suicide. The year also saw the death of another close friend, the existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel. A year later, the poet Paul Celan, who had translated Cioran’s work into German, also committed suicide. It was a period of refusals. Cioran proudly spurned several gestures of monetary support, as well as numerous literary prizes, many of them financially significant (there is an anecdote of Beckett  lending Cioran money while chiding him for refusing such prizes). All the while Cioran continued to live modestly in his rented apartment, working at his compact and cluttered desk, writing in his multi-colored notebooks, taking his frequent walks. In The Trouble with Being Born Cioran grapples with an age-old philosophical dilemma—the problem with being here, in this moment, thrown into an existence that one has neither asked for nor desired, in a world that we have difficulty whole-heartedly accepting or rejecting.

Philipp Mainländer

On the evening of the first of April, 1876, 34-year-old Philipp Batz gathered together copies of his book Die Philosophie der Erlösung (The Philosophy of Redemption), which had just arrived from the publisher. He had worked in the finance and banking sectors for nearly a decade, before quitting his job in disgust. He had been discharged from his military service due to exhaustion and fatigue. He had written several poems and literary works which remained unpublished. And, from the time he was a teenager, he had enthusiastically read Schopenhauer, in addition to Leopardi, Dante, and Heraclitus. In his Offenbach apartment, Batz gathered together the copies of his 900-page book, but with how much premeditation it is impossible to know. The book, published under the pen name of Philipp Mainländer, talks of a pervasive “Will-to-Die” that indiffferently drives everything that exists, to exist—to exist in order to be extinguished. Batz arranged the copies of his book on the fl oor into a single pile. He stepped up on top of his books, and hung himself from the ceiling beam of the room… [+]