(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)
Up until now, all my Essay Mondays selections have been simply my favorite essay out of the four I read in a given week: the one I enjoyed the most, or would consider objectively "best." Well, no longer. This week's "favorite" essay would undoubtedly be Natalia Ginzburg's subtle, clear-sighted "He and I," a portrait of a marriage, expressed as a series of domestic, everyday details. I related to Ginzburg; her tone is understated and well-wrought; I left her essay feeling quiet and a little bit sad, but appreciative of having shared a few pages with her speaker. However. There is no arguing with quantity of marginalia, and judging by the number of scribbled exclamation marks, laughing smiley faces, and hasty, offended arguments scrawled in the margins of E.M. Cioran's "Some Blind Alleys: A Letter," his is clearly the essay I found "most compelling." WHAT it compelled me to, is another question.
I agreed with almost nothing Cioran says in this thirteen-page nihilist diatribe, and what's more, I'm unclear whether he does, either: that may, indeed, be the point. In the course of an ostensible letter to a younger friend who wishes to become a writer, Cioran argues that all ideologies, professions, and avocations are shams, and that nothing, even exposing said shams, is worth the trouble of getting up in the morning. The depth and breadth of his supposed pessimism often makes his arguments confusing—rhetoricians generally make their cases by opposing one thing against another, but for Cioran pretty much everything is equally false and devoid of merit, so the reader is often led down mistaken paths, thinking he is valuing something (such as "wisdom") that he later reveals himself to deride. When he declares
Wisdom? Never was any period so free of it—in other words, never was man more himself: a being refractory to wisdom.
one is unsure whether he feels the lack of "wisdom" in the twentieth century is a compliment or an insult to the age, and whether man's refractory nature is to his credit or detriment, or both. By Cioran's own argument, both "wisdom" and "man" are so full of contradictions that it's hardly possible to form an opinion on either, pro or con—one is paralyzed into inaction as one watches human civilization spiral into the morass.
Where else will I find so persistent a will to fail? I envy the West the dexterity with which it manages to die out. When I would fortify my disappointments, I turn my mind toward this theme of an inexhaustible negative richness.
Oh, me too. I often turn my mind toward an inexhaustible negative richness—it really helps me to fortify my disappointments. Which is a constant struggle, let me tell you. People will try to encourage me, the swine.
Even Cioran's simple definitions double back on themselves and induce vertigo in the reader. For example, he seems to feel that "failures" are those who, rather than holding a grudge and working continually to aggravate their enemies, move on with their lives and later find that their enemies are no longer interested in them—an outcome, he feels "with the gravest consequences." For Cioran, it is our sicknesses, sins, grudges and enemies that we should keep close to our hearts, for without them he seems to feel we would have no remaining selfhood. He even argues against writing about our taints, since the therapeutic effects of the writing might dilute our precious toxicity. (I'm not making this up!) Yet later in the essay, he seems to suggest that even the act of holding fast to our ugliness is pointless, like every other pursuit we might select.
Which points out exactly what I found so hilarious and exasperating about Cioran: namely, that this level of far-reaching nihilism seems completely unbelievable and unsustainable, so over-the-top that I kept wondering to what extent he is making fun of himself. I've read and loved plenty of pessimistic literature, but this really goes above and beyond. I mean, let's listen to a few passages:
Some day, who knows? you may experience the pleasure of aiming at an idea, firing at it, seeing it there, prone, before you, and then beginning the exercise again on another, on all: this longing to lean over someone, to divert him from his old appetites, his old vices, in order to impose new and more noxious ones upon him, until he dies of them; to set yourself against an age or a civilization, to fling yourself upon time and martyrize its moments; then to turn against yourself, to torment your memories and your ambitions and, destroying your breath, to infect the air in order to suffocate all the better...
Cool! Sounds like a good time, Emil. Remind me to wear my black turtleneck when I come over for scones next Saturday. Or this hilarious gem:
Is futility, then, no more than an "ideal"? That is what I must fear, that is what I shall never be resigned to.
The thing about this kind of "I fear that even futility is futile" argument, is that one can't resist wondering why Cioran himself chooses to live such a tortured and pessimistic existence. I mean, if nothing makes any difference and everything is equally worthless, why bother crafting this letter to your friend to dissuade him from writing a book? Why write at all? Why feel miserable? Why not just eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you die? Cioran himself argues that his objective, in writing to his friend, was
...to put you on guard against the Serious, against that sin which nothing redeems. In exchange, I wanted to offer you...futility.
If the truly unredeemable sin is seriousness, then how serious can Cioran himself be about this whole futility malarkey? Is his entire essay, his entire BODY of essays, an enormous dark joke? That's the only interpretation that allows me to connect this essay with anything I know experientially about human nature, and has the added benefit of making the entire letter pretty rib-crackingly funny, leaving me free to enjoy such Cioran-isms as "the gangrenes of the intellect" and "pontificate in the anemia of his serenity." So, as long as nothing really matters to Cioran one way or the other, that's the one I'll choose to believe. :-)
Up next week: I was scheduled to read two very long essays next week, so I think I'll break them up. Thus, next Monday I'll be writing about Carlos Fuentes, Wole Soyinka, or Sara Suleri.
Badge photo courtesy of Liz West: