“The Philosophy of Insomnia” (Willis G. Regier)

The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle Review. April 10, 2011.

Hegel wrote in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right that the owl of Minerva flies only at night. It hoots at insomniacs. I know. I’m one.


Bruises, red eyes, and research remind me that insomnia breaks down body and soul. Noisy neighbors, crying kids, overwork, bad food, sickness, pain, allergies, and rude visitors drive sleep away. So do naked thoughts and the words they wear: insomnias of insult, dread, worry, remorse, faux pas, frustration, revenge, and raw anxiety. Philosophy, in its immense universals, omits nothing (not even nothing). Thus there have always been tired philosophers of insomnia.

Insomnia has intrigued thinkers since the ancients, an interest that continues today, especially in Europe. What light does philosophy’s exploration of the dark of night shine on insomnia, particularly for that quintessential insomniac, the scholar?

Philosophy is no friend of sleep. In his Laws (circa 350 BC), Plato platonized, “When a man is asleep, he is no better than if he were dead; and he who loves life and wisdom will take no more sleep than is necessary for health.” Clement of Alexandria echoed, “There is no use of a sleeping man, as there is not of a dead man. … But whoever of us is most solicitous for living the true life, and for entertaining noble sentiments, will keep awake for as long time as possible.”

“The need of sleep is not in the soul,” he wrote, “for it is ceaselessly active.” In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche preached that the high goal of good Europeans “is wakefulness itself.”

Aristotle said all animals sleep. In the 20th century, the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran added in On the Heights of Despair (first published in 1934): “Only humanity has insomnia.” Emmanuel Levinas, author of the erotic and metaphysical Totality and Infinity (1961), imagined philosophy, all of it, to be a call to “infinite responsibility, to an untiring wakefulness, to a total insomnia.” What scholar has not heard that call, sacrificing sleep, straining eyes, and risking health in pursuit of some bit of truth or transcendence?

The first thing you learn about insomnia is that it sees in the dark. The second is that it sees nothing. Nada, nichts, néant. TheFrench philosopher Maurice Blanchot said in The Writing of the Disaster (1980), “In the night, insomnia is discussion, not the work of arguments bumping against other arguments, but the extreme shuddering of no thoughts, percussive stillness.” [+]

“E.M Cioran: To Infinity And Beyond” (Stephen Mitchelmore)

Spike Magazine, November 1, 1997

Stephen Mitchelmore explains why the writing of E.M. Cioran refuses explanation

“Nothing is more irritating than those works which ‘co-ordinate’ the luxuriant products of a mind that has focused on just about everything except a system.”

What is there to know about Emile Cioran? He was born in Romania, in 1911, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest. In adolescence, he lost his childhood in the country and was moved to the city. He also lost his religion. For years he didn’t sleep – until he took up cycling. He passed sleepless nights wandering the dodgy streets of an obscure Romanian city. In 1937 he moved to Paris and wrote, producing what are generally classified as ‘aphorisms’, collected together under such titles as The Temptation To Exist, A Short History Of Decay and The Trouble With Being Born. He knew Samuel Beckett, who eventually lost sympathy with his pessimism. Late in life he gave up writing, not wanting to “slander the universe” anymore, and died a few years later after an encounter with an over-excited dog.
I hope none of this helps… [+]

A Short, Animated Introduction to Emil Cioran, the “Philosopher of Despair”

It is admittedly a gross oversimplification, but if asked to summarize a critical difference between analytical Anglo-American philosophers and so-called “Continentals,” one might broadly say that the former approach philosophy as thinking, the latter as writing. Contrast, for example, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Bertrand Russell—none of whom are especially known as prose stylists—with Michel de Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or Albert Camus. While the Englishmen struck out into heady intellectual waters indeed, the Europeans brought the full weight of their personalities to bear on their investigations. They invented personae, wrote literary aphorisms, and often wrote fiction, drama, and dialogue in addition to philosophy.

Surely there are many exceptions to this scheme, but on the whole, Continental thinkers have been looser with the laws of logic and more intimate with the rules of rhetoric, as well as with their own emotional lives. But perhaps one of the greatest examples of such a philosophical writer is someone most of us have never heard of. After watching this short School of Life video introduction on Romanian-French philosopher Emil Cioran, we may be persuaded to get to know his work. Cioran, says Alain de Botton above, “is very much worthy of inclusion in the line of the greatest French and European moral philosophers and writers of maxims stretching back to Montaigne, Chamfort, Pascal, and La Rochefoucauld.”… [+]

“Emil Cioran: the anti-philosopher of life and death” (Karl White)

Fourbythree Magazine

Does philosophy fail in the face of death? Karl White turns to the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran’s life-long meditation on birth, existence and annihilation, asking whether philosophy can save us from the despair of our final hour or whether its limits lie at the very edge of our own mortality.

From its inception the philosophical enterprise has centred on death. Philosophy teaches us how to die, declared Socrates. According to him, we are pretending to be wise when we fear death, as we know nothing about it, and it could, contrary to all our instincts, be a blessing. Philosophy also has endeavoured to palliate our fears by reiterating endlessly a reminder of our mortality: it attempts to elevate us above the quotidian to make our death seem nothing exceptional; it urges on us a kind of modesty, where we must remember that we are pledged to death, a constant memento mori (which translates literally as ‘Remember to die’). Does it succeed in any of these goals? According to the Romanian thinker E.M. Cioran the answer is a resounding and deathly no, for according to him “nature has been generous to none but those she has dispensed from thinking about death”. Faced with true catastrophe, philosophy can ultimately be only a meditation on its own failure and impotence when confronted by the reality of our extinction.

Cioran is the anti-philosopher of philosophy. He decries and scorns the attempts of professional philosophers to circumscribe and contain the rawness of experience and the aporias of life with categories, definitions and moral imperatives. Cioran instead records with inimitable style, irony and black humour the twists and turns of his sensations, rages and disappointments and most powerfully the impotence of both reason and philosophy to cope with and contain death’s invisible and limitless force.  While man is in his eyes a puppet of fate and forces beyond his control, philosophy, as a discipline that endeavours to contain existence through the judicious use of reason, is but a mockery and comic example of human hubris. Death and silence will have the last words… [+]

The Book of Life: E. M. Cioran

From The Book of Life website

Towards the end of the twentieth century, a celebrated Romanian-French philosopher and aphorist was invited to speak in Zurich. He was introduced with rhetorical pomp and flattering comparisons to the likes of Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. The speaker smiled, and immediately confounded his German interpreter by beginning his presentation with the words: ‘Mais je ne suis qu’un déconneur’ / ‘But I’m just a joker’.

A few of his critics might agree, but they would be wrong. For Emil Mihai Cioran is very much worthy of inclusion in the line of the great French and European moral philosophers and writers of maxims stretching back to Montaigne, Chamfort, Pascal and La Rochefoucauld.

Cioran was born in Rasinari, Romania, in April 1911. His father was a Greek Orthodox priest. Both facts were to be key in his later work. The writer’s Romanian origins are often taken as the source of a brooding, Romantic, fatalistic temperament while his father’s ecclesiastical calling finds echoes in his son’s unswerving preoccupation with themes of religion, sainthood and the dangers and joys of atheism… [+]

Related themes: Mono no aware, Wu-wei

“Winter in Paris” (Rob Doyle)

The Dublin Review nº 58, spring 2015

In late January, two weeks after the terrorist attacks, I took a trip to Paris with the vague intention of researching an essay on the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran, who lived in the city from 1937 until his death in 1995. What this research would consist of was not really clear. Cioran’s life in Paris was notable for the fact that, other than write books, he had done absolutely nothing of interest there. He had simply lived out year after year in the flat on rue de l’Odéon that he shared with his long-term partner, Simone Boué, where he finally became senile, fell ill, and died, inadvertently backing out of the suicide pact that he and Boué had made together. It seemed likely that my ‘research’ would be confined to loitering around Cioran’s grave at the Montparnasse cemetery, and staring up at his inaccessible apartment from the street below. Nonetheless, I had persuaded myself that spending time in Paris was the only way the essay would ever get off the ground.

On the morning of my trip, I woke at 4 a.m. and made it to the airport in good time to catch my 6.25 flight. When I showed my boarding pass at the gate, however, I was informed that I’d been queuing for the wrong 6.25 flight to Paris. This was Air France and I was Ryanair. I ran back the way I’d come, and for reasons unclear was instructed to pass through security all over again. Hurrying towards the Ryanair gate, I told myself that somehow it would all work out. I had never missed a plane, regardless of hangovers, stoned muddles and misfiring alarm clocks: it followed that I would not miss this one. When I reached the gate, sweating extravagantly, the airport worker in his high-vis jacket told me that the plane had been delayed – that was it out there on the taxiway – but the doors were all closed up and there was no way of getting on. I would have to book another flight and check in all over again. And no, there wouldn’t be any refund from Ryanair.

I ended up flying with Aer Lingus a couple of hours later, at a cost I’d rather not think about. The one consolation in all this was that Aer Lingus actually flew me to Paris, rather than to what Ryanair calls ‘Paris’, in reality a remote zone called Beauvais, which on previous visits seemed to me even further from Paris than Dublin itself. Looking out the window of the train that brought me from Charles de Gaulle to the Gare du Nord, I ruminated on how I had always prided myself on never having missed a plane, and now I had missed one. It seemed to me that, as I grew older, the stock of personal traits I could pride myself on was steadily diminishing – I had managed to slip up in almost every category where that had once been the case. Perhaps I had no option but to start taking pride in things I had done – accomplishments – rather than in things I had refrained from doing, such as missing a plane.

At Gare du Nord I boarded the Métro. As the crowded train was pulling out of the station, I looked out the window and saw four soldiers with machine-guns descending the stairs to the platform. The sight triggered a momentary panic: had the soldiers arrived because they knew something? Were they moments too late to board the train and shoot dead the jihadists that were now about to blow us up or flood the carriage with poisonous gas? The panic receded as I reminded myself that the chances of actually being caught up in a terrorist attack, in Paris or anywhere else, were slim. On the other hand, the very fact that I was thinking like this – having to remind myself that I was probably safe – demonstrated the efficacy of terrorism: I felt terrorized, therefore terrorism had achieved its goal. I recalled the five years I had spent living in London. Not once did I manage to take the Tube in that city without imagining, as we hurtled through narrow tunnels deep underground, the horror that would ensue if a bomb went off or a gas attack was perpetrated – the airless panic as bodies pressed against one another, everyone desperate to get out but knowing there was nowhere to go. I used to wonder how much heat my nervous system could take before the agony caused me to pass out: I told myself that it wouldn’t be so bad, that the body would automatically shut itself down to avoid intolerable pain, but I never really believed it.

As the train approached my stop, I noticed the unusual typography of the book being read by the young black guy sitting next to me. It looked very much like a book of aphorisms, and when I leaned over to check the title I was delighted to see that it was Cioran’s De l’inconvénient d’être né. Zoé, the friend in whose flat I would be staying, had told me that Cioran was not really taken seriously in France: his extreme pessimism and insistence on the wretchedness of life, humanity and everything else were considered a bit of a posture. ‘If that was really how he saw things, why didn’t he just kill himself?’ she asked in paraphrasis of the widespread French attitude.

The guy with the Cioran book was reading it bareback, as I thought of it, meaning without a pen in his hand. My own copy of The Trouble with Being Born back in Dublin was very heavily underlined, perhaps the most heavily underlined of all my books. I had read it numerous times, on each occasion happening to use a different-coloured pen to highlight the passages I considered particularly remarkable. The problem was, the whole book seemed particularly remarkable: the prose (in Richard Howard’s wonderful translation) was so consistently striking, its mode of attack so viscerally elegant, that, after the third or fourth reading, almost the entirety of the book had been underlined. These rampant, multi-coloured underlinings (which gave the impression of graffitied subway walls, like those we were now hurtling past), negated the very purpose of underlining in the first place. When a given text is uniformly excellent, it is futile to mark out the strong passages because one will end up, as I had done, underlining the entire thing… [+]

“E.M. Cioran, or God Doesn’t Wear a Cane” (Andrei Codrescu)

Originally published in the American Book Review, vol. 1, no. 5, December/January 1978

In my bed of pain, with a crown of ice cubes araund my foot, I was proof that Paris is the best skateboarding town in the world. The square at St. Sulpice had run from under me like Los Angeles had from under Fred Astaire, to show me, possibly, that I wasn’t as young as my son. But the pain in my foot wasn’t as bad as the ache in my heart because now I couldn’t see the hero of my adolescence with whom, by clever and devious means, I had obtained an interview. I looked over the radiator at the roofs of Montparnasse eight floors down, and called Emil Cioran to tell him that I couldn’t make it that evening, that I was a cripple.

It is not pity, it is envy the tragic hero inspires in us, that lucky devil whose sufferings we devour as if we were entitied to them and he had cheated us of them. Why not try to take them back from him? In any case, they were meant for us … To be alI the more certain of that, we declare them our own, aggrandize them and give them excessive proportions; grappIe or groan before us as he will, he cannot move us, for we are not his spectators but his rivals, his competitors in the theatre, capable of supporting his miseries better than he is … (The Temptation to Exist 194)

Ever since I remember (and my memory only goes as far as my literate beginnings) I experienced that frisson of awe and envy at mention of Cioran’s name. Born in my hometown of Sibiu in Transylvania, he was a legend before I read him. Forbidden by the Communists, his books bumed with a flame that went way beyond their content, In the Iycee (the same one he had attended) I would positively dissolve at the thought that one day I might be good enough to meet him. The dazzling fantasy of being in Paris talking to Emil Cioran exhausted me. Here I was, at the core of my fantasy, unable to shake his hand. I was a tragic hero, not because of my wounded foot which they might or might not saw off, but because I couldn ‘t see him… [+]