E.M. Cioran’s On The Heights Of Despair

On The Heights Of DespairThe high price of knowledge is one of our most enduring tropes. Though many of us still operate in Freud’s shadow, where understanding is the first step on the journey away from suffering, we have not forgotten the price humanity paid when Eve ate of the apple, or when Pandora opened her box. The quest for truth presupposes that whatever answers we find after our long journey of discovery will be palatable to us, benign, even life-giving. But we looked to the stars and found no heavens, and we looked inside ourselves and found no soul. Degenerating neurons and an expanding nothingness have replaced our hope of immortality, and our wider perspective has revealed to us only the extent of our unfathomable insignificance.

Nietzsche tells us that “a living thing can only be healthy within a certain horizon,” and if you doubt this, I dare you to contemplate your place in the wider universe as you go about your daily; do your petty problems still seem important? Or consider Hamlet at his most nihilistic: “Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that’s the end.” Difficult to construct meaning from such a foundation, no? This is the frame of mind that gives birth to despair, and it is from despair that a 23-year-old Romanian philosopher named Emil Cioran (pronounced, apparently, TCHAW-rahn) composed his first major work.

On The Heights Of Despair takes its title from the stock phrase used by Romanian obituaries to describe deaths by suicide: “On the heights of despair, so-and-so took his own life.” And suicide is one of this book’s principle concerns (its third chapter is titled “On Not Wanting To Live”), as how could it not be, given all of the above? “To meditate on death and on similar dangerous topics,” Cioran tells us, “is to deal life a mortal blow, for the mind contemplating so many agonizing questions must already have been wounded.” But Cioran is not looking for our sympathy or pity; he writes to redeem suffering, to expose us not only to its costs but its rewards.

He who has not experienced absolute fear, universal anxiety, cannot understand struggle, the madness of the flesh and of death. He who has known only grace cannot understand the anxiety of the sick. Only sickness gives birth to serious and deep feelings. Whatever is not born out of sickness has only an esthetic value. To be ill means to live, willingly or not, on the heights of despair. But such heights presuppose deep chasms, fearful precipices – to live on the heights means to live near the abyss. One must fall in order to reach the heights.

This understanding is dearly bought. Peace of mind, happiness, even romantic attachment, are portrayed as being luxuries forever out of reach. “There are questions,” Cioran tells us, “that, once approached, either isolate you or kill you outright.” The truly painful thing, he adds, is that we are not given the choice to ask these questions or not; either you live naively, in ignorance of them, or you’re aware of them and cannot stop yourself wondering.

I cede to Cioran the final words of this posting, from my favorite passage. I do not think I am wrong to detect at least the possibility of redemption in them:

An observation which, to my great regret, is always verifiable: only those are happy who never think, or, rather, who only think about life’s bare necessities, and to think about such things means not to think at all. True thinking resembles a demon who muddies the spring of life or a sickness which corrupts its roots. To think all the time, to raise questions, to doubt your own destiny, to feel the weariness of living, to be worn out to the point of exhaustion by thoughts and life, to leave behind you, as symbols of your life’s drama, a trail of smoke and blood – all this means you are so unhappy that reflection and thinking appear as a curse causing a violent revulsion in you. There are many things one could regret in this world in which one shouldn’t regret anything. But I ask myself; Is the world worthy of my regrets?