On Ugly Sentiments Beautifully Expressed

William James wrote that with regard to personal beliefs “the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned,” referring to the inborn temperament that inevitably shapes our perceptions and judgments. This notion of innate temperament is not so fashionable today but it’s one with a long history. The theory of the four humors, for example, goes back at least to Hippocrates and I still prefer it as a means of understanding personality types over the Myers-Briggs tests promoted today by sociology undergrads and human resource executives.

According to the old theory of the humors we are each born with an inclination toward the sanguine, the choleric, the melancholic or the phlegmatic. None of these is superior to the others; each has its pluses and minuses. None is strictly determinative either: while our predominant humors may govern us more or less entirely as children, we are able by the benefit of experience and the exercise of reason to curb their influence. Nonetheless, our native inclination remains, running like a subterranean stream which will occasionally bubble into the open air and, when we reach that second childhood of old age, flow more freely again nearer the surface.

I was reminded of all this while reading E.M. Cioran’s A Short History of Decay. Written in the tradition of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, this small book is a bombing campaign of pessimism, a charging train of unapologetic despair, nihilism, and almost unbridled misanthropy. Being of a primarily phlegmatic disposition myself, I tend rather strongly to disagree with Cioran, who was clearly a melancholic. There are limits to my tolerance for what can feel at times like puerile self-indulgence. Still, I admit that I enjoyed the book. Or, if “enjoy” is saying too much, I can say instead that I found it very difficult to set down, and I ended by feeling a certain sympathy for Cioran.

I can cite at least two reasons for this. First, while there’s plenty to abhor in it, Cioran is so generous and broad in his denunciations that I don’t think anyone could read his book and not discover a great deal to appreciate. Second, Cioran delivers his screed against life in a crisp, memorable style not at all unworthy of his illustrious predecessors. His English translator, Richard Howard, deserves some credit here, I’m sure, but the aphoristic power on display is undeniable.

At times I found Cioran’s bitter disillusionment and overpowering sense of life’s loathsomeness difficult to take seriously. For Cioran all action is null, all conviction false, all motives base. Healthy pleasures do not exist, and the only desirable thing is not to be. This only slightly exaggerates his views. What can we do with someone who asks in all earnestness “What sin have you committed to be born, what crime to exist?” How are we to approach a man who claims to believe that “Life is possible only by the deficiencies of our imagination and our memory” or that “By capitulating to life, this world has betrayed nothingness?” For Cioran it seems that only the horrible and repulsive can be true. There is no such thing as joy, unless it’s joy at the thought that we will soon be buried and forgotten.

And yet there’s a spiritual intensity to all this venom-spewing. Cioran, the son of an Eastern Orthodox priest, had a vexed relationship with religion. He relishes blasphemy, maligns the saints, spits at prayer and condemns the absurdities of faith and hope in all its forms. But then he offers up a strangely beautiful anti-prayer of his own which reads like an involuntary act of devotion: “Lord, give me the capacity of never praying, spare me the insanity of all worship, let this temptation of love pass from me which would deliver me forever unto You. Let the void spread between my heart and heaven! I have no desire to people my deserts by Your presence, to tyrannize my nights by Your light, to dissolve my Siberias beneath Your sun.” It says something, I think, that Cioran adored Bach. He once said that he considered Bach’s music “the only argument proving the creation of the universe cannot be regarded as a complete failure.”

To unlock the mysterious appeal of Cioran for someone who shares few of his views, William James’s “potentest premise” may serve as a key. I can perhaps sympathize with Cioran as someone who is generally unable to step outside the bounds of his own temperament. Like a miscalibrated scale, it seems to me that we weigh the world unaware of the bias which leads us inevitably to idiosyncrasy, mistaking the subjective for the objective and the relative for the absolute. This is not to say that some persons may not possess more precise mechanisms for judgment than others, but none is perfectly reliable. Much as we like to believe that our judgments align with reality (and by happy coincidence they sometimes will), in one direction or another we are all out of tune.

One of the challenges of self-knowledge is to determine your own margin of error, and in which direction it falls, so that you can apply a proper corrective to your judgments. It’s an appealing thought – this possibility of enlightened self-correction – but is more difficult than it sounds, since your ability to calculate your degree of miscalibration is itself subject to that same fundamental miscalibration. And if forming judgments about the world around you is so difficult, it is perhaps even more difficult to weigh the accuracy of judgments made by others, since this requires accurately measuring the degree of miscalibration that others are subject to by utilizing your own broken machinery.

To judge Cioran then, or others like him, is no easy thing. It may be that his understanding of the world is more enlightened than my own, closer to the truth beyond the veil of perception. I am prohibited by the law of my own temperament from believing so, but I admit it’s a possibility. And yet, though I say “Yes” to the world where Cioran says “No,” both of us speak. Cold silence can be the only absolute negation. I have to believe that to speak at all, and certainly to speak with warmth and with art, is always on some level to affirm the good, to hope.

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