January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
July 12, 2010
A friend recommended E. M. Cioran’s On the Heights of Despair (University of Chicago Press, 1996).
Cioran is a kind of 20th century, Romanian Nietzsche who “denounced systematic thought and abstract speculation in favor of indulgence in personal reflection and passionate lyricism.”
“I’ve invented nothing,” he said, “I’ve simply been the secretary of my sensations.”
It will come as no surprise that On the Heights of Despair is not light reading and that, at first approach, it provides little obvious sustenance for those of us practicing fidelity to the good news. Nonetheless, the book is short and worth some effort because it addresses some crucial aspects of the path that often get little attention from the pulpit: if you are serious about God, then you must be prepared to have your idols – those perpetually iterated simulacra of your ego – smashed. That is, if you are serious about God, then you must be prepared to live without the comfort and commiseration of your gods.
In this sense, Cioran’s work is an endlessly circling meditation on that “dark night of the soul,” of a world emptied of idols. It is a study of caducity and a dogged reflection on the world’s failure to meet our measure.
But, above all, it is a probing – the sensitivity of our fragile, ruined teeth be damned – of the vast silence that arises when we stop begging and complaining long enough to actually listen for God’s reply.
What happens, Cioran asks, when we “let the waters flow faster and the mountains sway threateningly, the trees show their roots like an eternal and hideous reproach, the birds croak like ravens, and the animals scatter in fright and fall from exhaustion”? What happens when we “let ideals be declared void; beliefs, trifles; art, a lie; and philosophy, a joke”? (52)
What happens when we settle, without escape through memory or fantasy, into the indefensible immediacy of the present moment? Or, as Cioran puts it, when, for a moment, we stop being “indirect”?
All men have the same defect: they wait to live, for they have not the courage for each instant. Why not invest enough passion in each moment to make it an eternity? We all learn to live only when we no longer have anything to expect, because we do not live in the living present but in a vague and distant future. We should not wait for anything except the immediate promptings of the moment. We should wait without the consciousness of time. There’s no salvation without the immediate. But man is a being who no longer knows the immediate. He is an indirect animal. (111)
What happens when indirection fails and the tangent of my life, for once, not only touches but crosses this moment?
After having struggled madly to solve all problems, after having suffered on the heights of despair, in the supreme hour of revelation, you will find that the only answer, the only reality, is silence (123).
There is something to be said for Cioran, for the way he impugns the vanity of our hopes and expectations, rails at the mute impotence of our idols, and preaches silence.
But, in the end, I find him too melodramatic, too Romantic. Perhaps this is inevitable given that I am comfortable, happily employed, well-fed, in excellent health, and in love with my wife.
Still, even despite my shortcomings, I suspect that Cioran simply gives the world’s idols too much credit because in those rare moments when my indirections cease, when I stop ventriloquizing my gods, and a divine silence settles, I always still here my children calling.