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Emil Cioran : A Portrait of Civilized Man

E. M. Cioran

A Portrait of Civilized Man

[The Hudson Review, Vol. 17 (Spring, 1964)]


Everyone knows that Motion is heresy. That is precisely why we throw ourselves into it and, irremediably depraved, prefer it to the orthodoxy of repose. We were made to vegetate, to blossom in inertia, and not to ruin ourselves with speed and with a hygiene that is responsible for the crop of disembodied and aseptic beings, this anthill of phantoms where everybody wriggles and nobody lives.

Since a certain dose of dirt is indispensable to the organism (physiology and body filth are interchangeable terms), the prospect of such cleanliness on a global scale is cause for real alarm. Lousy and serene, we ought to be satisfied with the company of beasts, lying down at their sides during the millennia to come, breathing the odor of the stable instead of the laboratory, dying of our maladies and not of our remedies, turning round about our nothingness and settling down in it, gently.

Vacancy, which ought to have been a duty and an obsession, has been replaced by action; and each act cuts into us and corrodes us because it occurs at the expense of our equilibrium and our endurance. The more our future contracts, the more we let ourselves sink into what ruins us. Civilization, our drug, has so poisoned us that our dependence on it is an addiction, a mixture of ecstasy and curse. Being what it is, it will finish us off, there is no doubt about that; as for giving it up, freeing ourselves of it, we cannot, today less than ever.

Who could fly to our aid and deliver us from it ? An Antisthenes, an Epicurus, a Chrysippus ? All three found their own civilization too complicated. What would they think of ours, and which among them, transplanted to our cities, would have a core hard enough to preserve his serenity ? The people of antiquity, saner and more stable than we in every way, could have got along without wisdom, but they developed it nevertheless. What unfits us forever is that we have neither the desire for wisdom nor the capacity.

If we were ready to root out our desires, we would at the same time free ourselves of our destiny; superior to beings, to things, and to ourselves, stubborn against blending any further with the world, by sacrificing our identity we would achieve liberty, joined as it is to anonymity and to abdication. "I am nobody ! I have vanquished my namel" he exclaims, the one who will not abase himself further to leave his mark on the world, who tries to follow the injunction of Epicurus: "Conceal your life."

We always go back to the men of antiquity when the art of living is in question, an art we have been robbed of by two thousand years of supernature and convulsive charity. We go back to them, to their deliberateness and their moderation, whenever we emerge from this frenzy Christianity has instilled in us; the curiosity they awake in us marks a receding of the fever, a step back towards health. And we go back to them again because the interval separating them from the universe being vaster than the universe itself, they offer us a kind of detachment not to be found among the saints.

In making frenetics of us, Christianity prepared us in spite of itself to beget a civilization whose victim it has now become: did it not create in us too many needs, too many wants ? These wants, these needs, interior in the beginning, gradually became degraded and turned outward, as if the fervor from which so many prayers rose was suddenly suspended and, since it could not disappear nor remain unemployed, put itself at the service of makeshift gods, and invented symbols as empty as they. Here we are, handed over to counterfeits of infinity, to an absolute without metaphysical dimensions, plunged into speed for want of being ecstatics. This panting junk, reflection of our fidgets, and the spectres that manipulate it, this parade of hallucinated automatons, where are they going ? what are they looking for ? what wind of madness drives them along ?

Every time I feel inclined to absolve them, when I doubt the legitimacy of my aversion or my terror, I have only to think of country roads on Sunday for the image of those motorized vermin to harden my disgust or my fright. The use of legs being abolished, the walker appears to be an eccentric or an outlaw among these paralytics on wheels; soon he will be taken for a monster. There is no more contact with the soil: everything about it has become foreign and incomprehensible to us. Cut off from all roots, unfit to mix with the dust and the mud, we have achieved the feat of breaking not only with the core but even with the surface of things. Civilization, at this stage, would seem to be a pact with the Devil, had man still a soul to sell.

Is it true that these engines were invented "to save time" ? More deprived, more alienated than the troglodyte, civilized man has not one moment to himself; even his leisure is feverish and oppressive; he is a convict on leave who succumbs to the boredom of the dolce far niente and the nightmare of beaches. Those who have frequented regions where idleness was the rule and everybody excelled at it, find it hard to adapt to a world where nobody recognizes it or knows how to enjoy it, where nobody breathes. Is a being shackled to a clock a human being ? And has he the right to call himself free when, as we know, he has shaken off all kinds of servitude except the essential one ?

At the mercy of the time that he feeds, that he fattens with his own substance, he exhausts himself, bleeds himself to assure the prosperity of a parasite and a tyrant. But he is calculating in spite of his foolishness, and fancies that his own cares and tribulations will diminish if, under the guise of a "program," he can bestow them on those "under-developed" peoples whom he blames for not being "in the know," that is, caught in the maelstrom. The easier to push them in, he inoculates them with the poison of his anxiety and holds onto them until he observes the first symptoms of its effects. To carry out his dream of a breathless humanity, distracted and minute-conscious, he roves over continents always in search of new victims in order to shed on them the overflow of his feverishness and his inner darkness.

In contemplating him we see the very nature of Hell : for is Hell not the place where, throughout eternity, man is condemned to time ?


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