The Temptation to Exist
by E.M. Cioran
Quadrangle Books, 223 pp., $5.00
The neck, Plato tells us in the Timaeus, was fashioned by the Demiurge as a kind of isthmus between the head, which houses the higher soul, and the damper, softer regions given to the appetites and passions. This was done in order to protect the mind from their pollutions. Since then we have had nothing but complaints about the arrangement. That sovereign light, we hear, is a sly beguiler, a false leader, creator of gods and myths, an envious organ of denial, and a professional instrument of deceit. Long have the liver and the lungs, the bowels, heart and privy members, languished out of sight in the ghettos of the body—becoming more resentful, more impoverished, more maligned, and more embittered every age.
A revolution is finally underway: not one merely which will deliver single bodies to them, some minuscule psychologies (that’s happened often enough), or even one which will turn over to these vital but barbaric powers an entire State (that’s also occurred occasionally), but one which will catch the whole declining West in its paws, and incidentally demonstrate the parallel which Plato drew between the condition of the soul and the corresponding health of society. Now, everywhere, in the name of Priapic Power, there is a rising against that absent landlord, Monsieur Teste, and his chief work, our civilization. “Whenever I pronounce the word civilization,” Gauguin cried, “I spit.” And M. Cioran writes: “…everything is virtue that leads us to live against the stream of our civilization, that invites us to compromise and sabotage its progress….”
Yet cliché…and Cioran is, like Pope, a polisher of commonplaces, a recutter of old stones, though he would disapprove of any comparison with so classical a poet…cliché informs us (doesn’t cliché tell us everything we know?) that every revolution is betrayed from the beginning—the ground of its spring is always spongy—and we have good reason to be sorry for this one—good reason. For what ruler has pleaded for his overthrow with greater eloquence and poetry, provided better demonstrations of his own unfitness, or supplied deadlier weapons to his enemies; who has spoken with more bitter poignancy of the ruler’s isolation, the burdens of such office and the emptiness of its outward show, protesting “what have kings, that privates have not too, save ceremony,” and exclaiming against all deeper differences, “if pricked, do I not bleed?”; who has represented more honestly the claims of the viscera to rule, then, than the mind, weary philosopher and king of the necktie tower, who now divides his realm to rally opposition and lead it, howling, against the head? But why? why, except to restore the intellect to greater health, serener power?
The guts give the mind its strength; certainly the isthmus must be crossed, and ditched up after; but we should not, out of bad conscience, as Nietzsche warns us, Oedipus our eyes out, trade scepter for staff, or kingship for a beggar’s tatters. The …