E.M. Cioran’s The Trouble With Being Born

The first month of the new year, of the new decade, even, seems to me the worst possible time to pick up a book by Emil Cioran, whose particular brand of nihilism is pessimistic even by the weighty standards of French philosophy. And yet something about the optimism all around me – the resolutions and talk of clean slates and fresh hopes – made his life-destroying sneers perversely attractive. “Three in the morning. I realize this second, then this one, then the next: I draw up the balance sheet for each minute. And why all this? Because I was born. It is a special type of sleeplessness that produces the indictment of birth.” So begins The Trouble With Being Born, Cioran’s seventh book, a collection of aphorisms whose original French title substitutes the more sardonic “inconvenience” for the word “trouble.” I share Cioran’s lifelong insomnia and, not infrequently, his abiding sense of the absurdity of life – no doubt a package deal – but I cannot match his wit. That, perhaps, is the most absurd joke he plays on us: that even as he’s undermining our most fundamental beliefs or forcing us to see with clear eyes what we would rather deny, he’s also provoking us to laugh.

Cioran never married; it is impossible to imagine him coupled, for only solitude could nurture a nihilism this profound. “The sole means of protecting your solitude is to offend everyone, beginning with those you love.” My image of him – indeed, France’s image of him, and his image of himself – catches him walking through the streets of Paris in the pre-dawn hours, with only the prostitutes and drunks for company. If he could not live life, in the ordinary sense, he was nonetheless determined to take his revenge on existence by chronicling it: “Nights when we have slept are as if they had never been,” he tells us. “The only ones that remain in our memory are the ones when we couldn’t close our eyes; night means sleepless night.” Combine that with what, for Cioran, is a fundamental dichotomy – between action and thought – and you get some way to understanding his fundamental gripe against life. “Since we remember clearly only our ordeals, it is ultimately the sick, the persecuted, the victims in every realm who will have lived to the best advantage. The other – the lucky ones – have a life, of course, but not the memory of a life.”

If life proved unlivable, he could nonetheless memorialize his failed attempt. “A book is a postponed suicide,” he tells us, but his books contain a kind of inverted wisdom, the record of a mind at odds with his time. A running theme throughout his work is the connection between the health of the individual and the health of his nation; Cioran was among the first to point out the spiritual decay of the West, which he understood as being linked to a collective loss of faith. “Obviously God was a solution, and obviously none so satisfactory will ever be found again.” Like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky before him, Cioran recoils in horror from the prospect of living in a meaningless universe, but like the German and unlike the Russian, he cannot take the leap of faith necessary to let go of his nihilism. “I have killed no one, I have done better: I have killed the Possible, and like Macbeth, what I need most is to pray, but like him too, I cannot say Amen.” His recognition that he is, at least in part, culpable for his maimed life spares him from a nauseating self-pity:

If, upon further reflection, I have shown some complacency in destroying, it was, contrary to what you think, always at my own expense. One does not destroy, save as one destroys oneself. I have hated myself in all the objects of my hatreds, I have imagined miracles of annihilation, pulverized my hours, tested the ganders of the intellect. Initially an instrument or a method, skepticism ultimately took up residence inside me, became my physiology, the fate of my body, my visceral principle, the disease I can neither cure nor die of.

But he also recognizes what his compatriots – too busy living life, no doubt – cannot: that a nation of people suffering such a collective loss of faith will be defined by inanition, will likewise suffer from a disease without cure.

Emil Cioran remains one of the most difficult of writers to recommend to friends. Who would thrust upon a loved one nihilism’s own prophet? But to read him is to understand, with a lucidity few writers have ever equalled, what a life without benevolent illusions becomes. “How pitiable the man (if such a being exists) who no longer lies to himself.” Cioran was such a man, or as close to that broken ideal as is possible.