Emil M. Cioran

from "On the Heights of Despair"

Thomas Masini

On the heights of despair, the passion for the absurd is the only thing that can still throw a demonic light on chaos.


The Passion for the Absurd

    « There are no arguments. Can anyone who has reached the limit bother with arguments, causes, effects, moral considerations, and so forth? Of course not. For such a person there are only unmotivated motives for living. On the heights of despair, the passion for the absurd is the only thing that can still throw a demonic light on chaos. When all the current reasons ‒ moral, esthetic, religious, social, and so on ‒ no longer guide one’s life, how can one sustain life without succumbing to nothingness? Only by a connection with the absurd, by love of absolute uselessness, loving something which does not have substance but which simulates an illusion of life. »  

    « I live because the mountains do not laugh and the worms do not sing. The passion for the absurd can grow only in a man who has exhausted everything, yet is still capable of undergoing awesome transfigurations. For one who has lost everything there is nothing left in life except the passion of the absurd. What else in life could still move such a person? What seductions? Some say: self-sacrifice for humanity, the public good, the cult of the beautiful, and so forth. I like only those people who have done away with all that—even for a short time. Only they have lived in an absolute manner. Only they have the right to speak about life. You can recover love or serenity. But you recover it through heroism, not ignorance. An existence which does not hida a great madness has no value. How is it different from the existence of a stone, a piece of wood, or something rotten? And yet I tell you: you must hide a great madness in order to want to become stone, wood, or rot. Only when you have tasted all the poisoning sweetness of the absurd are you fully purified, because only then will you have pushed negation to its final expression. And are not all final expressions absurd?

     THERE ARE PEOPLE who are destined to taste only the poison in things, for whom any surprise is a painful surprise and any experience a new occasion for torture. If someone were to say to me that such suffering has subjective reasons, related to the individual’s particular makeup, I would then ask; Is there an objective criterion for evaluating suffering? Who can say with precision that my neighbor suffers more than I do or that Jesus suffered more than all of us? There is no objective standard because suffering cannot be measured according to the external stimulation or local irritation of the organism, but only as it is felt and reflected in consciousness. Alas, from this point of view, any hierarchy is out of the question. Each person remains with his own suffering, which he believes absolute and unlimited. How much would we diminish our own personal suffering if we were to compare it to all the world’s sufferings until now, to the most horrifying agonies and the most complicated tortures, the most cruel deaths and the most painful betrayals, all the lepers, all those burned alive or starved to death? Nobody is comforted in his sufferings by the thought that we are all mortals, nor does anybody who suffers really find comfort in the past or present suffering of others. Because in this organically insufficient and fragmentary world, the individual is set to live fully, wishing to make of his own existence an absolute. Each subjective existence is absolute to itself. For this reason each man lives as if he were the center of the universe or the center of history. Then how could his suffering fail to be absolute? I cannot understand another’s suffering in order to diminish my own. Comparisons in such cases are irrelevant, because suffering is an interior state, in which nothing external can help. But there is a great advantage in the loneliness of suffering. What would happen if a man’s face could adequately express his suffering, if his entire inner agony were objectified in his facial expression? Could we still communicate? Wouldn’t we then cover our faces with our hands while talking? Life would really be impossible if the infinitude of feelings we harbor within ourselves were fully expressed in the lines of our faces.

     Nobody would dare look at himself in the mirror, because a grotesque, tragic image would mix in the contours of his face with stains and traces of blood, wounds which cannot be healed, and unstoppable streams of tears. I would experience a kind of voluptuous awe if I could see a volcano of blood, eruptions as red as fire and as burning as despair, burst into the midst of the comfortable and superficial harmony of everyday life, or if I could see all our hidden wounds open, making of us a bloody eruption forever. Only then would we truly understand and appreciate the advantage of loneliness, which silences our suffering and makes it inaccessible. The venom drawn out from suffering would be enough to poison the whole world in a bloody eruption, bursting out of the volcano of our being. There is so much venom, so much poison, in suffering!

     TRUE SOLITUDE is the feeling of being absolutely isolated between the earth and the sky. Nothing should detract attention from these phenomena of absolute isolation: a fearfully lucid intuition will reveal the entire drama of man’s finite nature facing the infinite nothingness of the world. Solitary walks ‒ extremely fertile and dangerous at the same time, for the inner life ‒ must take place in such a way that nothing will obscure the solitary’s meditation on man’s isolation in the world. Solitary walks are propitious to an intense process of interiorization especially in the evening, when none of the usual seductions can steal one’s interest. Then revelations about the world spring from the deepest corner of the spirit, from the place where it has detached itself from life, from the wound of life. To achieve spirituality, one must be very lonely. So much death-in-life and so many inner conflagrations! Loneliness negates so much of life that the spirit’s blooming in vital dislocations becomes almost insufferable. Isn’t it significant that those who have too much spirit, who know the deep wound inflicted on life at the birth of the spirit, are the ones who rise against it? Healthy, fat people, without the least intuition of what spirit is, who have never suffered the tortures of life and the painful antinomies at the base of existence, are the ones who rise up in defense of the spirit. Those who truly know it either tolerate it with pride or regard it as a calamity. Nobody can really be pleased at the bottom of his heart with spirit, an acquisition so damaging to life. How can one be pleased with life without its charm, naiveté, and spontaneity? The presence of the spirit indicates a want of life, great loneliness, and long suffering. Who dares talk of salvation through the spirit? It is by no means true that life on the immanent plane creates an anxiety from which man escapes through the spirit. On the contrary, it is much more true that through spirit man achieves disequilibrium, anxiety as well as grandeur. What do you expect those who don’t know the dangers of life to know of the dangers of the spirit? To argue the case for spirit is a sign of great ignorance, just as to make a case for life is a sign of great disequilibrium. For the normal man, life is an undisputed reality; only the sick man is delighted by life and praises it so that he won’t collapse. And what about the man who cannot praise either life or the spirit? »[1]

[1] Emil. M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair [Pe culmile disperării], translated by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, The University of Chicago Press,  Chicago & London 1992.

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