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Morbid Meditations


Alphonse de Neuville, The Huns at the Battle of Chalons

2,411 words

Translated by Guillaume Durocher

Translator’s Note: The following extracts are drawn from Emil Cioran, Précis de décomposition (Paris: Gallimard, 1949). The title is editorial.

There are no beings more dangerous than those who have suffered for a belief: The great persecutors are recruited among the martyrs who were not beheaded. (13)

We would not be able to last one second without deceiving ourselves: The prophet within each of us is indeed this seed of madness which enables us to prosper within our emptiness. (14)

. . . every intense suffering provokes a simulacrum of fulfillment and presents consciousness with a terrible reality which it cannot avoid, whereas suffering without matter in this temporal bereavement which is ennui does not challenge consciousness with anything which would force it towards a fruitful endeavor. (25)

It is not easy to destroy an ideal: One needs as much time as it took to promote and worship it. For it is not enough to annihilate its material symbol, which is easy enough; but its roots in the soul. (27)

How can we imagine the lives of others, even as our own seem barely conceivable? We encounter a being, we see him plunged in an impenetrable and unjustifiable world, in a mass of convictions and desires which superimpose themselves on reality like a morbid edifice. (31)

If the French have loaded nostalgia with too much clarity, if they have deprived it of a certain intimate and dangerous prestige, Sehnsucht,[1] [2] on the other hand, exhausts what is insoluble in the conflicts of the German soul, torn between the Heimat and the Infinite. (50)

Wisdom is the last word of a dying civilization, the halo of historical sunsets, fatigue turned into a worldview, the final tolerance before the rise of fresher gods – and barbarism. It is also a vain attempt at melody amidst the wheezing of the end, which rises everywhere. For the Sage – the theorist of the untroubled death, the hero of indifference, and the symbol of the final stage of philosophy, of its degeneration and its emptiness – has solved the problem of his own death . . . and hence all other problems as well. Uniquely ridiculous, he is an extreme case, that one encounters in extreme times like an exceptional confirmation of the general pathology. (55)

The ancient sages, who took their own lives as proof of their maturity, created a discipline of suicide which the moderns have unlearned. Fated for an agony without genius, we are neither the authors of our extremities nor the arbiters of our farewells; the end is no longer our end: We lack the excellence of a singular initiative – through which we would redeem an insipid and talentless life – just as we lack that sublime cynicism, the ancient splendor of an art of perishing. Despairing creatures of habit, corpses who accept themselves, we all survive ourselves and only die to accomplish a useless formality. It’s as if our life sought only to push back the moment when we will be able to get rid of it. (59)

The great [theoretical] systems are deep down only brilliant tautologies. What is to be gained from knowing that the nature of being consists in “the will to life,” in “the idea,” or the imagination of God or of Chemistry? A mere proliferation of words, subtle movements of meaning. What is rejects the verbal embrace, and intimate experience reveals to us nothing beyond the privileged and inexpressible moment. (73)

The critical point for vitality is not sickness – which is struggle – but this hazy horror which rejects everything and deprives the desires of the strength to procreate fresh mistakes. (87)

In every man there is nothing more existing and true than his own vulgarity, the source of everything which is fundamentally alive. (90)

All inspiration stems from the faculty of exaggeration – lyricism – and the entire world of metaphor would be a pathetic excitation without this passion which inflates words to the point of bursting. (97)

It’s the lack of nonchalant bitterness which turns men into sectarian beasts: The subtlest, like the crudest crimes, have been perpetrated by those who took things seriously. Only the dilettante has no taste for blood, he alone is not a scoundrel . . . (107)

How can one not love the autumnal wisdom of limp and corrupted civilizations? The Greek’s disgust, like the Roman’s, before Hyperborean freshness and reflexes, stemmed from a revulsion for dawns, for barbarism overflowing with potentialities, and for the idiocies of health. The resplendent corruption of every historical autumn is darkened by Scythia’s closeness. No civilization’s death throes can last forever; tribes roam in the surroundings, sniffing the smell of perfumed corpses . . . Thus, the devotee of dusk contemplates the failure of all refinement and the impudent march of vitality. He has only to collect, from the whole of becoming, a few anecdotes . . . A system of events proves nothing: The great exploits have joined the fairy tales and the textbooks. The glorious endeavors of the past, like the men who sparked them, remain of interest only for the fine words which crowned them. Woe to the conqueror who lacks wit! (112-3)

Only those who stop at the right moment prosper in philosophy, those who accept the limit and the comfort of a reasonable level of worry. Every problem, if one touches the bottom, leads to bankruptcy and leaves the intellect naked: No more questions and no more answers in a space without horizons. The questions turn against the mind which conceived them: It becomes their victim. Everything becomes hostile: his own solitude, his own audacity, absolute opacity, and the manifest nothingness. Woe to he who, having reached a certain point of the essential, has not stopped! History shows that the thinkers who climbed to the limit of the ladder of questions, who laid their foot on the last rung, on that of the absurd, have given to posterity an example of sterility, whereas their peers, who stopped half-way, have fertilized the mind’s flow; they have been useful to their fellows, they have passed down some well-crafted idol, a few polished superstitions, a few errors dressed up as principles, and a system of hopes. (115-6)

The “seasons” of the mind are conditioned by an organic rhythm; “I” do not decide whether to be naïve or cynical: My truths are the sophisms of my enthusiasm or my sadness. I exist, I feel, and I think according to the moment’s whims – and despite myself. Time shapes me; I oppose it in vain – and I am. My undesired present unfolds, unfolds me; unable to command it, I comment on it; a slave to my thoughts, I play with them, like a jester of the inevitable . . . (138)

The condition conducive to the pursuit of truth or of expression is found half-way between man and woman: Shortcomings concerning “virility” are the seat of the mind . . . If the pure female, whom one can suspect of a sexual or psychic anomaly, is emptier inside than a beast, the intact male exhausts the definition of the “cretin.” – Consider any being which has held your attention or excited your fervor: In his mechanism nothing malfunctioned in his favor. We rightly despise those who have not put their flaws to good use, who have not exploited their deficiencies, and have not enriched themselves upon their losses, just as we despise any man who does not suffer from being a man or simply from being. (140)

Rather than at the school of philosophy, it is with that of the poets that one learns the courage of intelligence and the boldness to be oneself. The most strangely impertinent statements of the ancient sophists pale in comparison with the poets’ “affirmations.” (143)

No reasonable being has ever been worshiped, has ever left behind a name, has ever left his mark on a single event. Unfazed by any precise idea or any transparent idol, the crowd is excited by the unverifiable and false mysteries. (146)

A nation that no longer rapes is in freefall; it is by the number of rapes that it reveals its instincts, its future. Look to that war in which it ceased to practice this kind of crime on a large scale: You will have found the first symbol of its decline; the moment from which love became for it a formality and the bed a precondition for the spasm, and you will have identified the beginning of its deficiencies and the end of its hereditary barbarism. (147)

He who, freed from all customary principles, would have no gift for acting, would be the archetype of misfortune, an ideally unhappy being. There is no reason to build this model of frankness: Life is tolerable by the degree of mystification one injects into it. Such a model would mean society’s immediate ruin, the “gentleness” of life in common lying in the impossibility of acting upon the infinity of our hidden thoughts. It is because we are all impostors that we are able to bear each other. He who would not accept to lie would see the earth vanish from under him: We are all biologically compelled to falsehood. (150-1)

A Caesar is closer to a village mayor than a sovereignly lucid mind deprived of any instinct of domination. (152)

We are in the company of satraps: each – according to his means – seeks a crowd of slaves for himself or contents himself with being alone. No one is self-sufficient: The humblest will always find a friend or a partner to act upon his dream of authority. He who obeys will be obeyed in turn: The victim becomes the bully; this is the supreme desire among them all. Only beggars and sages do not feel it; – unless theirs is a subtler game . . . (152-3)

Deprive [men] of their desire to be slaves or tyrants: You would demolish society in the blink of an eye. (154)

A nation dies when it no longer has the strength to invent other gods, other myths, other absurdities: Its idols turn pale or disappear; it draws from elsewhere, and feels alone before unknown monsters. This again is decadence. (161)

Love conceived as a ritual makes the intelligence sovereign in a kingdom of stupidity. The reflexes suffer; hobbled, they lose their longing to cause an unmentionable contortion; the nerves become the scene of clear-sighted unease and shivers, finally, the feeling continues beyond its natural duration thanks to the skill of two torturers specializing in studied pleasures. This is the individual cheating the species, this is blood become too lukewarm to still intoxicate the mind, this is blood cooled and thinned by ideas, rational blood . . . (163)

Consciousness has penetrated everywhere and reigns even in the marrow; and man no longer lives in existence, but in the theory of existence . . .

He who is lucid, understands himself, explains himself, justifies himself, and masters his acts will never execute a memorable action. Psychology is the hero’s tomb. (163)

Prejudice is an organic truth, false in itself, but accumulated and passed down from generation to generation: One cannot free oneself from them with impunity. . . . The duration and consistency of a community coincides with the duration and consistency of its prejudices. The Eastern peoples owe their longevity to their faithfulness to themselves . . . (166)

A civilization develops from agriculture to the paradox. Between these two extremities occurs the struggle between barbarism and neurosis: resulting in the unstable equilibrium of creative epochs. This struggle is reaching its end: All horizons are opening without any being able to excite a curiosity at once weary and awakened. It is then up to the disabused individual to flourish in the void, up to the intellectual vampire to lap up the tainted blood of civilizations. (167)

The error of those who grasp decadence is to wish to fight it, whereas we ought to encourage it: by progressing it exhausts itself and enables the advent of other forms. The true prophet is not he who proposes a system when nobody wants one, but indeed rather he who hurries on Chaos, he is its agent and acolyte. It is vulgar to trumpet dogmas in exhausted ages where a dream of the future looks like delirium or a sham. To stroll towards the end of history with a flower at our breast – that is the only attitude worthy of time’s unfolding. (168-9)

To learn to brandish concepts – unlearning how to look at things . . . Thought was born on a day of fleeing; the result was verbal ceremony. (173)

The mind and sensation will be enough for us; from their support will be born a discipline of sterility which will preserve us from enthusiasms and anxieties. (176)

“Depth” is the dimension of those who cannot vary their thoughts and their appetites, and who explore the same region of pleasure and pain. (187)

The wonders of the Earth – and even more so those of the heavens – result from a lasting hysteria. Saintliness: an earthquake of the heart, an annihilation through belief, the culminating expression of a fanatical sensibility, a transcendent deformity . . . (188)

One is a metaphysical animal by the rottenness one harbors within oneself. (195)

There is, for the unbeliever, who loves waste and dispersion, no more disturbing spectacle than these ruminations on the absolute . . . Where do they draw such an obsession for the unverifiable, so much attention for the vague, and such zeal in trying to grasp it? They are happy, and I hold this against them. If only they hated themselves! But they prize their “soul” above the universe; – this false assessment is the source of sacrifices and renunciations of an imposing absurdity. (196)

All thinkers are failures of action who avenge their failure by means of concepts. (219)

Like wax worked by the Sun, I melt during the day and become solid at night, an oscillation that decomposes me and restores me, a metamorphosis in inertia and laziness . . . (223)

Every bitterness hides a vengeance and becomes a system: pessimism, – this cruelty of the vanquished which cannot forgive life for having betrayed their expectations. (227)

A mind only captivates us by its incompatibilities, by the tension in its movements, by the dissonance between its opinions and its penchants. Marcus Aurelius, engaged in distant expeditions, thinks more about the idea of death than that of the Empire; Julian, having become Emperor, misses the contemplative life, envies the sages, and spends his nights writing against the Christians; Luther, with a Vandal’s vitality, sinks deeper and mopes about in an obsession with sin, and without finding a balance between its subtleties and vulgarity; Rousseau, who misjudges his instincts, lives only in the idea of their sincerity; Nietzsche, whose entire œuvre is but an ode to strength, led a sickly existence, of a poignant monotony . . . (246-47)


[1] [3] German: “longing.”