E.M. Cioran’s The Temptation To Exist

You pick up Emil Cioran’s writing at your peril. Though he is sometimes witty, he is never very consoling, and if you have not yourself seen the things he describes, looking at the world through his eyes might be fatal – not to your life, but to your worldview, though his most essential insight is that there is little practical difference between life and how you look at it. From a young age, it was his ambition to strip from himself every comforting belief, every aspect of faith, and to confront life – and therefore death – head on. Like a spiritual Descartes, he wanted to lay the foundations of his life on a certainty, but unlike Descartes, Cioran had no god from which to proceed. Absolute lucidity was his aim, and the price he paid was, in his words, a daily duel with existence itself. Hence On The Temptation To Exist, which appeared in Cioran’s adopted France in 1956, when the entire country, reeling from World War II, suffered from a collective loss of faith.

Cioran made his fame in France primarily as an aphorist, but The Temptation To Exist breaks from the limitations of those shorter barbs, presenting us with a series of philosophical essays – though one of these essays, “Rages and Resignations,” is really a series of loosely-connected aphorisms. Nonetheless, we recognize even in the titles the hallmarks of Cioran’s thought: “Thinking Against Oneself,” for example, which might describe Cioran’s entire modus operandi. Like Nietzsche, Cioran posits an essential conflict between thought and action (“the sphere of consciousness shrinks in action”), though where Nietzsche encouraged such a shrinking of consciousness in the name of accomplishment, Cioran sides with thought, with being itself: “The only free mind is the one that, pure of all intimacy with beings or objects, plies its own vacuity.” Understandably, the majority of people show no interest in investigating their own vacuity; instead, they proceed from fiction to fiction, generating more sustaining beliefs with every action they take in the world.

We breathe too fast to be able to grasp things in themselves or to expose their fragility. Our panting postulates and distorts them, creates and disfigures them, and binds us to them. I bestir myself, therefore I emit a world as suspect as my speculation which justifies it; I espouse movement, which changes me into a generator of being, into an artisan of fictions, while my cosmogonic verve makes me forget that, led on by the whirlwind of acts, I am nothing but an acolyte of time, an agent of decrepit universes.

In “The Temptation To Exist,” Cioran confronts death head on, death that makes a mockery of our existence, that lurks behind all our ambitions and accomplishments, death the great nullifier, the great pretext for all fiction.

We are death, and everything is death – death seduces us, sweeps us away, carries us aloft, casts us to earth, or hurls us beyond the bounds of space itself. Death, forever intact, unworn by all the ages of our history, makes us accomplices in its apotheosis: we feel its immemorial freshness, and its time unlike any other… death’s time, which ceaselessly creates and decomposes us. To such a degree does death hold us, immortalize us in agony, that we shall never be able to indulge ourselves in the luxury of dying; and although we possess the very science of destiny, although we are a veritable encyclopedia of fatalities, we nevertheless know nothing, for it is death that knows everything within us.

Later he will lament that “death revealed to me in all things the marks of its sovereignty.” His point is well-taken. There are people, for example, who are so consumed by the thought of their own future demise that they cannot act in the present, cannot enjoy the life in front of them, as they live it. Clinical psychologists would view these people as disturbed; Cioran would smile and consider them merely lucid. For Cioran, such lucidity is fatal: “Unable to see in death the positive expression of the void, the agent that awakens the creature from itself, the summons resounding in the ubiquity of drowsiness, I knew nothingness by heart, and I accepted my knowledge.” Not for nothing has Cioran been called a “philosopher of the void.” The conclusion he draws in this essay is that life without some kind of faith is, if not impossible, then doomed to a spiritual inanition:

[…] the fact remains that everything that lives, every rudiment of existence, participates in a religious essence. Let us speak plainly: everything which keeps us from self-dissolution, every lie which protects us against our unbreathable certitudes is religious. When I grant myself a share in eternity, when I conceive of a permanence which includes me, I trample underfoot the evidence of my friable, worthless being. I lie to the others as to myself. Were I to do otherwise, I should disappear within an hour. We last only as long as our fictions. When we see through them, our capital of lies, our religious holdings collapse. To exist is equivalent to an act of faith, a protest against the truth, an interminable prayer… […] If you have not resolved to kill yourself, there is no difference between you and the others, you belong to the faction of the living, all – no matter what their convictions – great believers. Do you deign to breathe? You are approaching sainthood, you deserve canonization…

“Every lie which protects us against our unbreathable certitudes is religious” – that line alone encapsulates his entire argument. Do you live every day of your life, unconcerned for your impending death, unmolested by thoughts of your own mortality, the impermanence of your existence? Then whatever it is that mediates between you and those “unbreathable” truths is, fundamentally, religious.

Now, extend that logic to wider society. What happens when a nation or a civilization loses the protective cocoon of its faith? That is the subject of this collection’s second and perhaps most prophetic essay, “On A Winded Civilization.”

Given the spectacle of their teeming successes, the nations of the West had no trouble exalting history, attributing to it a meaning and a finality. It belonged to them, they were its agents: hence it must take a rational course… Consequently they placed it under the patronage, by turns, of Providence, of Reason, and of Progress. What they lacked was a sense of fatality, which they are at last beginning to acquire, overwhelmed by the absence which lies in wait for them, by the prospect of their eclipse. Once subjects, they have become objects, forever dispossessed of that luminescence, that admirable megalomania which had hitherto protected them from the irreparable.

He wrote these words in the middle of the 20th century, but how prophetic they now seem, when a majority of Europeans consider their countries to be in a state of decline, and express no optimism about the future. How will they cope, now that their illusions have been torn from them? By retreating into triviality:

If, in the past, they died for the absurdity of glory, they abandon themselves now to a frenzy of small claims. “Happiness” tempts them; it is their last prejudice, from which Marxism, that sin of optimism, derives its energy. To blind oneself, to serve, to surrender to the ridicule or the stupidity of a cause – extravagances of which they are no longer capable. When a nation begins to show its age, it orients itself toward the condition of the masses.

Does this not anticipate, by decades, the rise of consumerism, the expansion of the state, the endless “human rights” and infinite varieties of entertainment – all designed to maximize our “happiness”? When we take the measure of our countries, it is in the language of leisure and “quality of life,” and when we orient our lives, it is towards the fun and the diverting, away from the difficult and the dreary. What a cruel joke we will have played on Cioran, if we manage to turn this “philosopher of the void” into a prophet.