Some books are like last night's 20 degree dog walk, much of it facing into a brisk wind. I hated it and I loved it. My overriding perception during the two miles was: This is marvelously real. And fucking cold!
E.M. Cioran's "A Short History of Decay" struck me the same way -- like an icy splash of reality. A book that demolishes so thoroughly, it leaves you on firm ground.
After coming across quotations from it, and being intrigued, I found a used copy of the first (1975) English translation online. Cioran, a Romanian philosopher, wrote "A Short History of Decay" in French. It was published in 1949.
The back flap captures my reaction to the book perfectly.
"I regarded A Short History of Decay," the author recently wrote, "as an experiment in annihilation; or perhaps more precisely, a negative approach to life. But to my surprise, the great majority of its readers apparently found it invigorating. This is what me aware of the vital quality of Destruction."
Yes, this is a bleak book. Yet also a strangely uplifting one. Many passages resonated with my churchlessness.
Cioran's style has been called aphoristic. So it's possible to get a good sense of "A Short History of Decay" from this selection of passages that made me grab my yellow highlighter after being shocked by the author's jolt of existentiality.
Idolaters by instinct, we convert the objects of our dreams and our interests into the Unconditional... Even when he turns from religion, man remains subject to it; depleting himself to create fake gods, he then feverishly adopts them: his need for fiction, for mythology triumphs over evidence and absurdity alike.
What is the Fall but the pursuit of a truth and the assurance you have found it, the passion for a dogma, domicile within a dogma?
I feel safer with a Pyrrho than with a Saint Paul, for a jesting wisdom is gentler than an unbridled sanctity. In the fervent mind you always find the camouflaged beast of prey; no protection is adequate against the claws of a prophet.
A human being possessed by a belief and not eager to pass it on to others is a phenomenon alien to the earth, where our mania for salvation makes life unbreathable.
Every faith practices some form of terror, all the more dreadful when the "pure" are its agents.
In every man there sleeps a prophet, and when he wakes there is a little more evil in the world.
The ideally lucid, hence ideally normal, man should have no recourse beyond the nothing that is in him.
To be fooled, to live and die duped, is certainly what men do. But there exists a dignity which keeps us from disappearing into God and which transforms all our moments into prayers we shall never offer.
Give life a specific goal and it immediately loses its attraction. The inexactitude of its ends makes life superior to death; one touch of precision would degrade it to the triviality of the tombs.
Hence the ancient Mysteries, so-called revelations of the ultimate secrets, have bequeathed us nothing by way of knowledge... The fact is that there were no secrets; there were rites, there were shudders. Once the veils had fallen, what could they discover but insignificant consequences? The only intuition is to nothingness -- and to the mockery of being alive.
The idle apprehend more things, are deeper than the industrious: no task limits their horizon; born into an eternal Sunday, they watch -- and watch themselves watching... In a world of inaction, the idle would be the only ones not to be murderers.
The mistake of every doctrine of deliverance is to suppress poetry, climate of the incomplete.
We are doomed to perdition each time life does not reveal itself as a miracle, each time the moment no longer moans in a supernatural shudder.
By what peculiarity of fate do certain beings, having reached the point where they might coincide with a faith, retreat to follow a path which leads them only to themselves -- and hence nowhere?
We too seek "salvation," if only by wanting nothing to do with it.
It was enough for one Hindu prince to see a cripple, an old man, and a corpse to understand everything; we see them and understand nothing, for nothing changes in our life.
We begin to live authentically only where philosophy ends, at its wreck, when we have understood its terrible nullity, when we have understood that it was futile to resort to it, that it is no help.
We are engulfed in a pleonastic universe, in which the questions and answers amount to the same thing.
At first, we think we advance toward the light; then, wearied by an aimless search, we lose our way: the earth, less and less secure, no longer supports us; it opens under our feet... And we, once in love with the peaks, then disappointed by them, we end by fondling our fall, we hurry to fulfill it, instruments of a strange execution, fascinated by the illusion of reaching the limits of the darkness, the frontiers of our nocturnal fate. Fear of the void transformed into a kind of voluptuous joy, what luck to gainsay the sun!
I have sought for the geography of Nothingness, of unknown seas and another sun -- pure of the scandal of life-bearing rays -- I have sought for the rocking of a skeptical ocean in which islands and axioms are drowned, the vast liquid narcotic, tepid and sweet and tired of knowledge.
Even the skeptic, in love with his doubts, turns out to be a fanatic of skepticism. Man is the dogmatic being par excellence; and his dogmas are all the deeper when he does not formulate them, when he is unaware of them, and when he follows them.
Each of us is, for himself, the one fixed point in the universe. And if someone dies for an idea, it is because it is his idea, and his idea is his life.
The thinker who reflects without illusion upon human reality, if he wants to remain within the world, and if he eliminates mysticism as an escape-hatch, ends up with a vision in which are mingled wisdom, bitterness, and farce.
I have known no "new" life which was not illusory and compromised at its roots.
When every question seems accidental and peripheral, when the mind seeks ever greater problems, it turns out that in its procedure it no longer comes up against any object but the diffuse obstacle of the Void.
Is there a pleasure more subtly ambiguous than to watch the ruin of a myth?
One deception triumphs: there results a religion, a doctrine, or a myth -- and a host of adepts; another fails; then it is only a divagation, a theory, or a fiction. Only inert things add nothing to what they are: a stone does not lie; it interests no one -- whereas life indefatigably invents: life is the novel of matter.
The true believer is scarcely to be distinguished from the madman; but his madness is legal, acknowledged; he would end up in an asylum if his aberrations were pure of all faith. But God covers them, legitimizes them.
And how could modesty be a virtue of temples, when a decrepit old woman who imagines Infinity within reach raises herself by prayer to a level of audacity to which no tyrant has ever laid claim?
You imagine, in the name of faith, that you are conquering your self; in fact, you seek to perpetuate it in eternity, this earthly duration being insufficient for you... The megalomania of monasteries exceeds all that the sumptuous fevers of palaces ever imagined.
Me... I want to wallow in my mortality. I want to remain normal.
If we put in one pan the evil the "pure" have poured out upon the world, and in the other the evil that has come from men without principles and without scruples, the scale would tip toward the first.
To know is to see; it is neither to hope nor to try.
Much more than in the school of the philosophers, it is in the academy of poets that we learn the courage of intelligence and the audacity to be ourselves.
To advance without convictions and alone among the truths is not given to a man, nor even to a saint; sometimes, though, to a poet.
When we perceive ourselves existing we have the sensation of a stupefied madman who surprises his own lunacy and vainly seeks to give it a name.
A conformist, I live, I try to live, by imitation, by respect for the rules of the game, by horror of originality... It is because we are all impostors that we endure each other. The man who does not consent to lie will see the earth shrink under his feet: we are biologically obliged to the false.
Try to be free: you will die of hunger. Society tolerates you only if you are successively servile and despotic; it is a prison without guards -- but from which you do not escape without dying.
Each civilization represents an answer to the questions the universe proposes; but the mystery remains intact.
The advocates of hell have no fewer claims on the truth than those of heaven -- and I should plead the cause of madman and sage with the same fervor.
Hence there is only one way out: to abolish the soul, its aspirations and abysses; our dreams were poisoned by it; we must extirpate it, along with its craving for "depth," its "inner" fruitfulness, and its other aberrations.
It is not doubts which erode God, but faith.
What perfection of the abyss have I come to, that there is no space left for me to fall in?
I dream of a universe exempt from celestial intoxications, of a universe with neither Cross nor faith.
I am in a good mood: God is good; I am sullen: God is wicked; I am indifferent: He is neutral. My states confer upon Him corresponding attributes: when I love knowledge, He is omniscient, and when I worship power, omnipotent. When things seem to me to exist, He exists; when they seem illusory, He evaporates.
Only aspiration to the Void saves us from that exercise of corruption which is the act of belief.
The splendor of a prayer addressed to No One!
I smile: a world is born; I frown: it vanishes, and another appears. No opinion, no system, no belief fails to be correct and at the same time absurd, depending on whether we adhere to it or detach ourselves from it.
The universe begins and ends with each individual, whether he be Shakespeare or Hodge; for each individual experiences his merit or his nullity in the absolute.
There is more wisdom in letting yourself be carried by the waves than in struggling against them.
There is more than one resemblance between begging for a coin in the city and waiting for an answer from the silence of the universe. Avarice presides over men's hearts and over matter.
Monstrous dreams inhabit groceries and churches: I have come across no one who did not live in delirium.
How easy it is to believe yourself a god by the heart, and how hard it is to be one by the mind! And with how many illusions must I have been born in order to be able to lose one every day!