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The Trouble with Being Born

E. M. Cioran (1973; English trans. by Richard Howard, 1976)


Once we reject lyricism, to blacken a page becomes an ordeal: what's the use of writing in order to say exactly what we had to say? (12)

What is that one crucifixion compared to the daily kind any insomniac endures? (14)

There was a time when time did not yet exist. . . . The rejection of birth is nothing but the nostalgia for this time before time. (17)

To get up in the morning, wash and then wait for some unforeseen variety of dread or depression.
I would give the whole universe and all of Shakespeare for a grain of ataraxy. (22)

No one has lived so close to his skeleton as I have lived to mine: from which results an endless dialogue and certain truths which I manage neither to accept nor to reject. (25)

He who hates himself is not humble. (26)

We say: he has no talent, only tone. But tone is precisely what cannot be invented—we're born with it. Tone is an inherited grace, the privilege some of us have of making our organic pulsations felt—tone is more than talent, it is its essence. (27)

The farther men get from God, the farther they advance into the knowledge of religions. (28)

If only we could reach back before the concept, could write on a level with the senses, record the infinitesimal variations of what we touch, do what a reptile would do if it were to set about writing! (29)

A conscious fruit fly would have to confront exactly the same difficulties, the same kind of insoluble problems as man. (31)

Better to be an animal than a man, an insect than an animal, a plant than an insect, and so on.
Salvation? Whatever diminishes the kingdom of consciousness and compromises its supremacy. (31)

It's not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late. (32)

When you know quite absolutely that everything is unreal, you then cannot see why you should take the trouble to prove it. (32)

Each opinion, each view is necessarily partial, truncated, inadequate. In philosophy and in anything, originality comes down to incomplete definitions. (33)

The more injured you are by time, the more you seek to escape it. To write a faultless page, or only a sentence, raises you above becoming and its corruptions. You transcend death by the pursuit of the indestructible in speech, in the very symbol of nullity. (34)

What a disappointment that Epicurus, the sage I most need, I should have written over three hundred treatises! And what a relief that they are lost! (36)

No true art without a strong dose of banality. The constant employment of the unaccustomed readily wearies us, nothing being more unendurable than the uniformity of the exceptional. (37)

When I happen to be busy, I never give a moment's thought to the meaning of anything, particularly of whatever it is I am doing. A proof that the secret of everything is in action and not in abstention, that fatal cause of consciousness. (45)

Consciousness is much more than the thorn, it is the dagger in in the flesh. (48)

No one is responsible for what he is nor even for what he does. This is obvious and everyone more or less agrees that it is so. Then why celebrate or denigrate? Because to exist is to evaluate, to emit judgments, and because abstention, when it is not the effect of apathy or cowardice, requires an effort no one manages to make. (51)

However disabused one may be, it is impossible to live without any hope at all. We always keep one, unwittingly, and this unconscious hope makes up for all the explicit others we have rejected, exhausted. (54)

A man who fears ridicule will never go far, for good or ill: he remains on this side of his talents, and even if he has genius, he is doomed to mediocrity. (55)

In the days when I set off on month-long bicycle trips across France, my greatest pleasure was to stop in country cemeteries, to stretch out between two graves, and to smoke for hours on end. I think of those days as the most active period of my life. (59)

Philosophy in the Morgue. "My nephew was obviously a failure. If he had succeeded in making something of himself he would have had a different ending than ... this." "You know, Madame," I replied to the monumental matron who had addressed me, "whether one succeeds or not comes down to the same thing." "You're right," she said, after a few seconds' thought. This unexpected acquiescence on the part of such a woman moved me almost as much as the death of my friend. (63)

"A pity," you were saying, "that N has never produced anything."
"So what! He exists. If he had given birth to books, if he had had the misfortune to 'realize' himself, we wouldn't have been talking about him the last hour." The advantage of being someone is rarer than that of creating. To produce is easy; what is difficult is to scorn the use of one's gifts. (64)

D.C., who was writing his recollections of childhood in his Rumanian village, having told his neighbor, a peasant named Coman, that he wouldn't be left out, received a visit from the latter early the next day: "I know I'm a worthless man but at the same I didn't think I had fallen so low as to be talked about in a book."
How superior the oral world was to ours! Beings (I should say, peoples) live in the truth only as long as they have a horror of the written. Once they catch the virus, they enter the inauthentic, they lose their old superstitions to acquire a new one, worse than all the others combined. (65-6)

Anyone who gives himself up to writing believes—without realizing the fact—that his work will survive the years, the ages, time itself. . . . If he felt, while he was at work on it, that it was perishable, he would leave off where he was, he could never finish. Activity and credulity are correlative terms. (73)

We must beware of whatever insights we have into ourselves. Our self-knowledge annoys and paralyzes our daimon—this is where we should look for the reason Socrates wrote nothing. (74)

What makes bad poets worse is that they read only poets (just as bad philosophers read only philosophers), whereas they would benefit much more from a book of botany or geology. We are enriched only by frequenting disciplines remote from our own. This is true, of course, only for realms where the ego is rampant. (74)

"Never judge a man without putting yourself in his place." This old proverb makes all judgment impossible, for we judge someone only because, in fact, we cannot put ourselves in his place. (75)

We dread the future only when we are not sure we can kill ourselves when we want to. (77)

Won over by solitude, yet he remains in the world: a stylite without a pillar. (79)

Nights when we have slept are as if they had never been. The only ones that remain in our memory are the ones when we couldn't close our eyes: night means sleepless night. (85)

It is always surprising to discover that the great mystics produced so much, that they left so many treatises. Undoubtedly their intention was to celebrate God and nothing else. This is true in part, but only in part.
We do not create a body of work without attaching ourselves to it, without subjugating ourselves to it. Writing is the least ascetic of all actions. (89)

"Do I look like someone who has something to do here on earth?"—That's what I'd like to answer the busybodies who inquire into my activities. (90)

A free man is one who has discerned the inanity of all points of view; a liberated man is one who has drawn the consequences of such discernment. (91)

A burial in a Norman village. I ask for details from a farmer watching the procession from a distance "He was still young, barely sixty. They found him dead in the field. Well, that's how it is .... that's how it is .... " This refrain, which struck me as comical at the time, has haunted me ever since. The fellow had no idea that what he was saying about death was all that can be said and all we know. (93)

Years and years to waken from that sleep in which the others loll; then years and years to escape that awakening . . . (94)

Think about those who haven't long to live, who know that everything is over and done with, except the time in which the thought of their end unrolls. Deal with that time. Write for gladiators. . . . (94)

Why fear the nothing in store for us when it is no different from the nothing which preceded us: this argument of the Ancients against the fear of death is unacceptable as consolation. Before, we had the luck not to exist; now we exist, and it is this particle of existence, hence of misfortune, which dreads death. Particle is not the word, since each of us prefers himself to the universe, at any rate considers himself equal to it. (95)

To think that so many have succeeded in dying! (96)

Everything is wonderfully clear if we admit that birth is a disastrous or at least an inopportune event; but if we think otherwise, we must resign ourselves to the unintelligible, or else cheat like everyone else. (98)

Educating yourself not to leave traces is a moment-by-moment war against yourself, solely to prove that you could, if you chose, become a sage. . . . (104)

Philosophy, which had made it its business to undermine beliefs, when it saw Christianity spreading and on the point of prevailing, made common cause with paganism, whose superstitions seemed preferable to the triumphant insanities. By attacking and demolishing the gods, philosophy had intended to free men's minds; in reality, it handed them over to a new servitude, worse than the old one, for the god who was to replace the gods had no particular weakness for either tolerance or irony.
Philosophy, it will be objected, is not responsible for the advent of this god, indeed this was not the god philosophy recommended. No doubt, but it should have suspected that we cannot subvert the gods with impunity, that others would come to take their place, and that it had nothing to gain by the exchange. (114-15)

For the victim of anxiety, there is no difference between success and fiasco. His reaction to the one is the same as to the other: both trouble him equally. (115)

When I torment myself a little too much for not working, I tell myself that I might just as well be dead and that then I would be working still less. . . . (115)

In order to conquer panic or some tenacious anxiety, there is nothing like imagining your own burial. An effective method, readily available to all. In order not to have to resort to it too often in the course of a day, best to experience its benefit straight off, when you get up. Or else use it only at exceptional moments, like Pope Innocent IX, who, having commissioned a painting in which he was shown on his deathbed, glanced at it each time he had to make some important decision. (117)

Deep in his heart, man aspires to rejoin the condition he had before consciousness. History is merely the detour he takes to get there. (121)

Prosperous societies are far more fragile than the others, since it remains for them to achieve only their own ruin, comfort not being an ideal when we possess it, still less of one when it has been around for generations. Not to mention the fact that nature has not included well-being in her calculations and could not do so without perishing herself. (126)

The only thing the young should be taught is that there is virtually nothing to be hoped for from life. One dreams of a Catalogue of Disappointments which would include all the disillusionments reserved for each and every one of us, to be posted in the schools. (127-8)

My vision of the future is so exact that if I had children, I should strangle them here and now. (130)

With sufficient perspective, nothing is good or bad. The historian who ventures to judge the past is writing journalism in another century. (135)

Are we to execrate our age—or all ages?
Do we think of Buddha withdrawing from the world on account of his contemporaries? (135)

The worst crimes are committed out of enthusiasm, a morbid state responsible for almost all public and private disasters. (136)

Had I lived in the early period of Christianity, I too, I fear, would have yielded to its seduction. And I hate that sympathizer, that hypothetical fanatic: I cannot forgive myself that conversion of two thousand years ago. . . . (139)

Montaigne, a sage, has had no posterity. Rousseau, an hysteric, still stirs nations. I like only the thinkers who have inspired no tribune of the people. (141)

Some of the Provincial Letters were rewritten as many as seventeen times. Astounding that Pascal could have expended so much time and energy whose interest seems minimal to us now. (148)

In Antiquity, one resorted readily, especially among the philosophers, to voluntary asphyxia—one held one's breath until . . . one died. So elegant and yet so practical a mode of being done with it has completely disappeared, and it is anything but certain it can ever reappear. (151)

The number of fanatics, extremists, and degenerates I have been able to admire! A relief bordering on orgasm at the notion that one will never again embrace a cause, any cause . . . (160)

A privilege to live in conflict with one's times. At every moment, one is aware one does not think like the others. This state of acute dissimilarity, however indigent or sterile it appears, nonetheless possesses a philosophical status which one would be at a loss to seek in cogitations attuned to events. (161)

When you know yourself well and do not despise yourself utterly, it is because you are too exhausted to indulge in extreme feelings. (166)

Sometimes I wish I were a cannibal—less for the pleasure of eating someone than for the pleasure of vomiting him. (168)

Each time you find yourself at a turning-point, the best thing is to lie down and let the hours pass. Resolutions made standing up are worthless: they are dictated either by pride or by fear. Prone, we still know these two scourges, but in a more attenuated, more intemporal form. (168)

When someone complains that his life has come to nothing, we need merely remind him that life itself is in an analogous situation, if not worse. (168)

Works die: fragments, not having lived, can no longer die. (168)

Man certainly began praying long before he knew how to speak, for the pangs he must have suffered upon leaving animality, upon denying it, could not have been endured without grunts and groans, prefigurations, premonitory signs of prayer. (169)

In art and in everything, the commentator is generally better informed and more lucid than the subject of commentary. This is the advantage the murderer has over his victim. (170)

At peace with itself and the world, the mind atrophies. It flourishes at the slightest contrariety. Thought is really no more than the shameless exploitation of our embarassments and our disgraces. (171)

I shall never understand how we can live knowing that we are not—to say the least!—eternal. (174)

The ideal being? An angel ravaged by humor. (174)

Any success, in any realm, involves an inner impoverishment. It makes us forget what we are, it deprives us of the torment of our limits. (175-6)

A disease is ours only from the moment we are told its name, the moment when the rope is put around our neck. . . . (180)

All my thoughts are turned toward resignation, and yet not a day passes when I fail to concoct some ultimatum to God or to anyone. . . . (181)

The early Greeks regarded the psyche as no more than air, wind, or at best smoke, and one readily agrees with them every time one wearies of foraging in one's own ego or that of others, searching for strange and, if possible, suspect depths. (182-3)

I was shaking with rage: my honor was at stake. The hours passed, dawn was approaching. Was I going to ruin my night because of a trifle? Try as I would to minimize the incident, the reasons I invented to calm myself remained ineffectual. That anyone would dare do such a thing to me! I was on the point of opening the window and screaming like a madman, when the image of our planet spinning like a top suddenly seized my mind. My anger subsided at once. (188)

"Life seems good only to the madman," observed Hegesias, a Cyrenaic philosopher, some twenty-three centuries ago. These are almost the only words of his we have. . . . Of all oeuvres to reinvent, his comes first on my list. (191)

No one approaches the condition of a sage if he has not had the good luck to be forgotten in his lifetime. (192)

One cannot live without motives. I have no motives left, and I am living. (194)

Our first intuitions are the true ones. What I thought of so many things in my first youth seems to me increasingly right, and after so many detours and distractions, I now come back to it, aggrieved that I could have erected my existence on the ruin of those revelations. (195)

To manifest oneself, to produce in any realm is the characteristic of a more or less camouflaged fanatic. If we do not regard ourselves as entrusted with a mission, existence is difficult; action, impossible. (195)

No position is so false as having understood and still remaining alive. (199)

It is not given to everyone to have had an unhappy childhood. Mine was much more than happy—it was crowned. I cannot find a better adjective to designate what was triumphant about even its pangs, that had to be paid for, that could not go unpunished. (200)

In five hundred thousand years, it appears that England will be entirely submerged. If I were an Englishman I should lay down my arms at once.
Each of us has his unit of time. For one it is the day, the week, the month, or the year; for another, it is a decade, or a century. . . These units, still on the human scale, are compatible with any plan, any task.
There are some, however, who take time itself for their unit, and sometimes raise themselves above it: for them, what task, what plan deserves to be taken seriously? A man who sees too far, who is contemporary with the whole future, can no longer act or even move. . . . (201)

To shake people up, to wake them from their sleep, while knowing you are committing a crime and that it would be a thousand times better to leave them alone, since when they wake, too, you have nothing to offer them. . . . (202)

When you no longer believe in yourself, you stop producing or struggling, you even stop raising questions or answering them, whereas it is the contrary which should have occurred, since it is precisely at this moment that, being free of all bonds, you are likely to grasp the truth, discern what is real and what is not. But once your belief in your own role, or your own lot, has dried up, you become incurious about everything else, even the "truth," though you are closer to it than ever before. (204)

When you live past the age of rebellion, and you still rebel, you seem to yourself a kind of senile Lucifer. (209)

If we could sleep twenty-four hours a day, we would soon return to the primordial slime, the beatitude of that perfect torpor before Genesis—the dream of every consciousness sick of itself. (212)

No one has loved this world more than I, and yet if it had been offered to me, even as a child, on a platter, I should have shrieked, 'Too late, too late!" (212)

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