“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.” [+]


“El insomnio de Cioran” (Willis G. Regier)

“Cioran’s Insomnia”, en MLN, Volume 119, Number 5, December 2004 (Comparative Literature Issue), Johns Hopkins University. Versión de Rodrigo García Bonilla. Descargables [ensayo], 4, en Fundación. Revista en Línea, núm. 6, abril – mayo 2013.

Insomne de carrera, Cioran hizo del insomnio un laboratorio —lugar poco cómodo para trabajar a gusto. En 1970 le confesó a François Bondy: “sólo he podido escribir en la melancolía de las noches de insomnio”. En 1994 le dijo a Michael Jakob que consideraba el insomnio como la “mayor experiencia” de su vida. Cioran describía “un drama que duró muchos años y que me ha marcado por el resto de mis días. Todo lo que he escrito, todo lo que he pensado, todo lo que he elaborado, todas mis divagaciones tienen su origen en ese drama. Fue más o menos a los veinte años cuando perdí el sueño y lo considero el mayor drama que pudo ocurrir… Erraba por horas en las calles, como una especie de fantasma, y todo lo que escribí más tarde fue elaborado durante aquellas noches”. Adam Gopnik dijo que Cioran consideraba no haber dormido durante cincuenta años: “Esta afirmación, concuerdan los doctores y el sentido común, era una exageración poética; sólo se preocupaba demasiado por tener un buen descanso en la noche. Pero la insistencia en vestir sus piyamas como cilicios, en hacer absoluto su insomnio —un tipo de estado mental simbólico—, era, en un país tan afecto a los absolutos como Francia, irresistible”. El insomnio se convirtió en su rúbrica, un tema trascendental que lo vinculó con otros insomnes; durante el curso de su carrera nombró a Hitler, Nerón y Mallamé. “Para Mallarmé, condenado —creía él— a velar las veinticuatro horas, el sueño no era una ‘verdadera necesidad’ sino un ‘favor’. Sólo un gran poeta puede permitirse el lujo de tal insania”… [+]


Cioran’s Nietzsche (Willis G. Regier)

Source: French Forum, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Fall 2005), pp. 75-90
Author(s): Willis G. Regier
Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Cioran’s Nietzsche

Susan Sontag wrote that

Cioran comes after Nietzsche, who set down almost the whole of Cioran’s position a century ago. An interesting question: why does a subtle, powerful mind consent to say what has, for the most part, already been said? . . . Whatever the answer, the “fact” of Nietzsche has undeniable consequences for Cioran. He must tighten the screws, make the argument denser. More excruciating. More rhetorical.

Sontag’s essay has become a touchstone for taking Cioran seriously as a philosopher and the correlations between Cioran and Nietzsche she described are now staples of Cioran criticism.

Sontag’s junction of Cioran and Nietzsche has been steadily reinforced. As a postscript to his book on Nietzsche, Clément Rosset puts Cioran in the tradition of Nietzsche’s Gay Science and credits him for posing the most serious and most grave question to philosophy: whether an alliance is possible between lucidity and joy. Two of Cioran’s most esteemed translators, Ilinca Zarifopol- Johnson and Sanda Stolojan, separately asserted that Nietzsche was a major influence on Cioran in the 1930s. Cioran’s friend, the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater, emphasized how much the two have in common. In a close comparison of Cioran’s Romanian works with Nietzsche’s books and Nachlass, Lucia Gorgoi found multiple similarities in style and substance, particularly regarding aphorisms and nihilism. Patrice Bollon’s summary of Cioran’s philosophy links it to Nietzsche more frequently than to any other philosopher.

Despite all this, Nietzsche and Cioran are a pair that ought not be taken for granted, for three reasons: affinity and resemblance are too easily mistaken for agreement and influence; Cioran strenuously resisted… [Pdf]