By JAMES GALLANT.
“JUST DO IT!” was a popular bumper sticker and t-shirt slogan in the U.S. a while back. One can imagine Romanian writer Emil Mihai Cioran (1911-1995) responding with surprise that anyone should find it necessary to urge doing. With the exception of people given to prolonged melancholy brooding, like himself, doing is, after all, mainly what people do.
“At the street fair, watching a tumbler grimacing, shouting, exhausting himself,” he writes, “I told myself that he was doing his duty, whereas I was evading mine.”
That doing something—perhaps almost anything— obscures awareness of mortality as effectively as it does struck Cioran as remarkable. But for this, we would be aware constantly of the futility of effort, and the machinery of daily life would surely grind to a halt. (“Existence would be a quite impracticable enterprise if we stopped granting importance to what has none.”)
“We go to such lengths—why? To become again what we were before”—i.e., non-existent.
Being born is a “laughable accident,” to be sure; however, the moment Cioran forgets himself “I behave as if it were a capital event indispensable to the progress and equilibrium of the world.”
There is no better way of forgetting oneself than doing something. Though a sedentary insomniac and melancholic given to endless dismal cogitations, and conscious always of the illusions stirred by doing, Cioran confesses satisfaction in his own modest exertions. “To deceive melancholy, you must keep moving.” He would have approved the sentiment of Petula Clark’s 1960s pop song “Downtown”: “When you’re alone, and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown….Things’ll be great when you’re downtown.”
Would Dostoevsky’s man from underground have been in such a bad way if he had simply gone downtown where “all the noise and hurry seems to help.”
“No depression, that secular acedia, can resist puttering,” Cioran writes in The Trouble with Being Born.1 “So long as I give myself up to physical exercise, manual labor, I am happy, fulfilled. Once I stop, I am seized by dizziness, and I can think of nothing but giving up for good.”
High on his list of salvational putterings was his addiction to writing: “How could I resign myself for a moment to what is not eternal…at this very moment, for example.”
A remedy for despair he recommends is taking up the dictionary of a foreign language you will never speak or write, and looking up the meaning of word after word.
He listens with astonishment to a man who will probably die within a week describe projects he has conceived; but contemplated sub species aeternatatis, were this fellow’s plans any more absurd than those of people who will continue projecting for another half century?
Looking to the future, having projects, may well be what sustains long life in certain people, but is this a blessing or merely a practical joke played on the living, prolonging the agony?
Every time Cioran felt interested in the future, he had “the impression of having been visited by Grace.”
“How does it happen” he writes, “that everyone aspires to further life, to additional being, and there is no one who strives to descend toward the ideal default?”
SUSAN SONTAG, IN an introduction to Cioran’s The Temptation to Exist, wrote that the author agreed with those thinkers in the modern tradition who regarded systematic metaphysics and theology as the “outmoded fantasy of the mind, part of the provincialism of the spirit, the childhood of man.” Primary responsibility for this lay in modern doubts about the scope of our intellectual powers. One consequence had been the penchant for “mutilated, incomplete” philosophizing favored by writers like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Cioran–writing that is “personal (even autobiographcal), aphoristic, lyrical, anti-systematic.”
A more important consequence for philosophy, and culture generally, had been an eclipse in consciousness of Nature as the background and matrix of human life. This eclipse had tended to generate, by default, intense concentration on experiential immediacies as the only cognizable realities. In some circumstances this can seem more absurd than old-fashioned metaphysical attempts to descry the operations of the Divine Mind in Nature. While writing the present essay, I have chanced upon a case in point, a piece by American man of letters Paul Goodman, “Within My Horizon,”2 written toward the end of his life following a heart attack. (Goodman died in 1972).
The essay, summing up a life of thought, opens with the remark, “I can’t think abstractly. Like everybody, I suppose…I start from concrete experience, but I have to stick to it.” Abstractions simply bounce off him. “I have never experienced that All is One, that everything is connected.”
Well, no one other than possibly a mystic or someone on LSD is ever likely to “experience” All being One. As generalizations go, this one would not seem terribly difficult to entertain, though, and for someone teetering on the edge of the grave might it not be of greater interest than the “good-sized chunks of experience” that alone held Goodman’s attention? He confesses there had been times when an ability generalize about his “chunks” would have been valuable, had he possessed it, but only limited empirical conclusions about his “chunks” had been possible for him. So there he was at the end of his life, rambling on rather tediously about the chunks, and the psychological aspects of their apprehension–when the simple generalization at the heart of the memento mori might have been compelling, as it had been the case for Cioran early and late.
Cioran in his mature writing evinces little interest in “good chunks of experience,” and as a recluse, he would have had few enough to contemplate. But given his disposition of mind that would not really have mattered. He was always concerned with human realities of a “universal” kind whose apprehension does not require extensive experience: the obfuscation of mortality by “doing”; our “feeling of being everything and the evidence of being nothing”; our inexplicable preoccupation with the future, and the peculiar persuasion of immortality. And how is it that every proud generation feels it has nothing to learn from its predecessors and stands “at the apex if not the end of history”?
To some mid-twentieth-century literary critics who had expressed regret that the reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson hadn’t a more extensive experience of the world, Allen Tate responded3 that her life, though outwardly uneventful, had been “one of the richest and deepest ever lived on this [American] continent.” This was in no small part a result of the fact that “Puritan ideas on the theological plane” had been woven into her sensibility, lending depth to her treatment of whatever attracted her attention as a poet. For experience, the minutiae of a spinster’s life were sufficient.
Cioran was no Puritan, but something like what Tate said of Dickinson could be said also of this reclusive Romanian expatriate in Paris; for him, as for Dickinson, mortality was the general truth that could not be ignored in pondering the immediacies of consciousness and behavior.
James Gallant, an independent scholar, is the Fortnightly Review’s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and author of Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations, published recently in our Odd Volumes series. The manuscript of his La Leona and Other Guitar Stories has won the 2019 Schaffner Press award for a work dealing with music-in-literature. The book will be published in 2020.
- Other equally cheerful Cioran titles: The Temptation to Exist, Exasperations, A Short History of Decay, Anathemas and Admirations, Fractures, The Heights of Despair. (In Romanian journalism, obituaries for suicides in Cioran’s day began, “On the heights of despair….”) The quotations in the present essay are translations from the French by Richard Howard.
- in Crazy Hope and Finite Experience, Final Essays of Paul Goodman, ed. Taylor Stoehr
- in “Emily Dickinson,” from The Man of Letters in the Modern World (1955)