Cioran: the burden of existence

Is it the knowledge of good and evil or the expulsion from the garden that constitutes man’s original sin? Whatever the case, it is at least plausible that “we are still not thinking”. Modernity, then, is still an “unfinished project” inasmuch as we have yet to think. And yet the original moment of “disenchantment” that dispelled the old gods continues to go under the name of an “idolatrous” science. We fail to think and yet it is because we are so successful at being dialectical that we have returned to the need for the old mythologies of earth, spirit, and the Absolute. In other words, true to form, it is our failure to be dialectical (we have not yet, it seems, reached the end of history) that indicates our great success at being dialectical.

This is why, because our philosophy has called us from slumber, insomnia and boredom are the trademarks of modernity: of minds that have been awakened but can never again fall asleep. “What recourse to China or India will heal us”, Cioran asks, if as Hegel says, these are the “dream of the infinite Spirit”? Nothing is easier than resisting happiness, Cioran observes; yet even our suffering suffers the intensity of desire. The negativity of desire never attains the stillness or the non-presence of the Tao because even that negativity is the affirmation of a world [of sense]; there is no conceptual equivalent of the Taoist wu-wei in our language.

Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphor is that of “stillness”. We, on the other hand, “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 …” [Cioran] What is called the “burden of time/history” is, rather, the burden of materiality. No wonder, then, that even the great mythologist Joseph Campbell would call the religions of the east religions of death. But what even he failed to observe is that gnosticism is a peculiarly western notion. Cioran again: “as long as we lived amid elegant terrors, we accommodated ourselves quite well to God. When others—more sordid because more profound—took us in charge, we required another system of references, another boss. The Devil was the ideal figure. Everything in him agrees with the nature of the events of which he is the agent, the regulating principle: his attributes coincide with those of time”. We are thus caught in the double bind of an original sin: “to divine the timeless and to know nonetheless that we are time, that we produce time, to conceive of the notion of eternity … [is] an absurdity responsible for both our rebellions and the doubts we entertain about them”. Hence no western eschatology is able to provide a real escape, for all of them rivet the individual to his being. Thus “the fact still remains that our first ancestor left us, for our entire legacy, only the horror of paradise. … Meanwhile, down to our nerve cells, everything in us resists paradise. To suffer: sole modality of acquiring the sensation [better: sense] of existence; to exist: unique means of safeguarding our destruction”.

It is because we live in history that we cannot but exist. Even the most insignificant and unknown person whose death goes unnoticed has a sense in a world, i.e., the melancholic sense of being the one whose life was insignificant. This inner contradiction of individualism is the reason why no individual as such can be a Taoist. This is where Freud is in agreement: the individual is nothing other than this desire to be, which is also the desire not to be (neither Freud nor Cioran are obviously committed to making this an ontological claim but, rather, a claim of sense). Cioran: “loath to admit a universal identity, we posit individuation, heterogeneity as a primordial phenomenon. Now, to revolt is to postulate this heterogeneity, to conceive it as somehow anterior to the advent of beings and objects. If I oppose the sole truth of Unity by a necessarily deceptive Multiplicity … my rebellion is meaningless, since to exist it must start from the irreducibility of individuals, from their condition as monads, circumscribed essences. Every act institutes and rehabilitates plurality, and, conferring reality and autonomy upon the person, implicitly recognizes the degradation, the parceling-out of the absolute”. Yet “the very rhythm of our life is based on the good standing of rebellion”. Thus, Cioran says, “let us surrender to all rebellions: they will end by turning against themselves, against us …” In but one short, cogent paragraph, Cioran proceeds from this sentence to establish himself as our greatest philosopher of history, for only he more than Hegel or Nietzsche, has been able to explain our dialectical success\failure. Cioran understood that the burden of thought—that is otherwise cashed in the cliché of “Enlightenment rationalism”—is the burden of time, and that it is the lived time of finitude that constitutes the consciousness of history. For Hegel it is the other way around; for Heidegger, the case is more complicated, but in the end for Heidegger history reveals itself as a destiny whereas for Cioran it takes a people who live exiled from history to revel in the sense of a destiny. Here, then, is where Cioran is able to speak to the philosophers of the event: the fundamental question of rebellion is whether rebellion has sense in history. Rebellion can neither have such sense—a rebellion with historical sense is no longer a rebellion—nor naively turn its back on a historical consciousness that burdens it with more than the strength of a call but less than that of necessity. This is why rebellions end by “turning against us”: for after any rebellion, “we” will cease to be, not by any martyrdom or suicide, but, perhaps, by the courage to exist.

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2 thoughts on “Cioran: the burden of existence

  1. Pingback: The solitude of the inner citadel: the epoché of suffering | Preludes and Refrains

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