Tag Archives: E.M. Cioran

Smile, Villain, for the Wolf is American: On Charles Willeford’s High Priest of California

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The High Priest of California–a “smiling villain:” treacherous, lecherous–a beast (a wolf in a suit). It’s good fun. And, in this way, Willeford’s classic pulp tale of a used car salesman’s exploits, the portrait is painted of a man (Mr. Russell Haxby) in love with the world, a monster of life obsessed by women, by the pursuit of women, well, one particular woman–a tragic woman. Simply stated, this book is the tale of a man bent on destruction for gratification. Haxby wants what he wants and will get what he wants whatever the consequences. No–this is a book about consequences, about how to dodge consequences at all costs in order to preserve one’s solitude. This is not your typical noir, crime, pulp novel–it’s the study of a character and immersion into the mind of a sociopath. Enter the muck.

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Willeford’s poem “Sportsman” reads, “I dipped my finger in love/And found pain./I dipped my Finger in hate/And found pain.” It ends with the lines: “But there was nothing in/Between:/Tonight I’ll go bowling.” This shift from the metaphoric, the power of what is behind (underneath, projected onto, created) to the mundane–the distraction–is how Willeford’s High Priest of California makes sense of things. It reads as something so quick that one must pause to breathe in the layers. In some ways, it is the story of the pursuit of the ideal, the journey toward the end and the disgust that occurs upon reaching the destination. Or, it could be a spin-off on that classic line, “Be careful what you wish for…” But, Haxby is too careful, too conniving. He knows better than to be a victim.

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E.M. Cioran often discusses “lucidity” as that moment when meaning is stripped from things and one perceives things in a way that transforms that thing from what it means to a sense of what it is (or is not–the thing shattered). An example would be perceiving the corpse inherent in a living person, the corpse that one will eventually become. Another example would be to conjure a goal and imagine it through to the end and, in doing so, choose not to act in any way (to resign oneself to the bed, to the horizontal). Cioran’s “lucidity” or “dose of lucidity” is apt when we look at High Priest of California. Haxby, like Cioran, suffers from this dose–comes to perceive things in a way that alters his entire malicious plan in a new direction. He maunders onward.

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“Tonight I’ll go bowling.” Yes, there is the spirit of America in this book, a gritty, yet Technicolor America of the 1950s (or thereabouts)–the American man at his lowest. It is sharp suits, hats, hearty breakfasts, American cars, Italian food, dancing, smoking cigarettes, slugging gin, or a hot towel on the face to sink into the abyss. It is a nice entrance into the world of Charles Willeford, novelist supreme, a nice entrance into a spiral of madness.

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Life is the Novel of Matter: An E.M. Cioran Moment

“Only inert things add nothing to what they are: a stone does not lie; it interests no one – whereas life indefatigably invents: life is the novel of matter.” (E.M. Cioran “A Short History of Decay, pg. 84).

To live in the human world, is to live through a virtual screen of interpretations and imaginations. We bind ourselves to the world we know by the stories that we tell each other and the minds/cultures that we are wrapped around, existing through; the other story-tellers that exercise their influence upon us. The tree does not tell to us, it cannot tell us stories. It stands inert and rooted. Rather, we tell others about the tree. We form an image of the tree through how we address the tree given our intentions and ways of being toward it. For you and I, although we may both be looking at the same physical object, it will come to life for us in different ways. An environmentalist and a lumberjack see the same tree is a radically different way, or at least, depending on who they are and what their situations are, could do so.

Moreover, to speak is to lie. That is, it is a telling of how things aren’t. The worlds that we can have are spoken into existence – we live out our words. Through our speech, we are the inventors of the human world. We mind that world through how we come to speak about it. Although, we, too, are matter, we are more than matter: we are consciousness and mind. It is difficult to step back and analyze the life stories that we create, as each stepping back places us in yet another facet of the same story.

The stories of our lives are woven through the words that we can use and make intelligible to others. Human life is a “standing-out” against matter. And, where does all this lead us?

If you want to read more E.M. Cioran articles, please see the E.M. Cioran page.

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The Beast of Fame – E.M. Cioran: An Explication of “Fame: Hopes and Horrors” (Lesson One)

People talk about us and we talk about other people, too. We are, simultaneously, connected and divided by our talk with others. What remains of me after I have a conversation with you is out of my control. Who I become for you is decided by you and through those conversations you have with other people. We arise out of what we do and out of of how we are perceived by self and others. Our name, our own special flavor, slips from our tongues and onto the tongues of others. It is a virus. “Reputation” is that slippery wraith, which we must wrestle with, from which we cannot escape.

E.M. Cioran, from his essay “Fame: Hopes and Horrors,” writes, “Just as each of us, in order to ‘make a name for himself,’ strives to outstrip the others, similarly in the beginning man must have known the vague desire to eclipse the animals, to affirm himself at their expense, to shine at any price (108).” For Cioran, this tendency toward, what could be called “personal branding” or “reputation” is not a recent phenomenon, but is rooted in our very being, in the everydayness of our “minding” of the world. That is to say, this desire toward recognition and reputation, while perpetually settled in front of our eyes as something as natural as falling snowflakes, comes from a suspect source: the Serpent’s kingdom. Nonetheless, us humans like to shine, to be in the “spotlight,” to be seen, to increase our visibility. More than “like,” we crave it.

Cioran continues, “Man alone, in the state of nature, wanted to be important, man alone, among the animals, hated anonymity and did his utmost to escape from it. To put himself forward, such was and such remains his dream. It is difficult to believe he has sacrificed Paradise out of a simple desire to know good and evil; on the other hand, it is easy to imagine him risking everything to be Someone (108).” The shift that occurred from selflessness to selfhood, is something that we cannot know, by virtue of our ability to be knowledgeable about the world and about ourself. But, a faint glimmer of selflessness remains, can flourish if nurtured, can, at times, overcome the Beast of Fame.

To be anonymous in a Web 2.0 world is to not exist, to fall off the map of the social media grid. Take away the technological connections from our life and we are once again in confrontation with the raw presence of ourself and those immediately present to us. Nonetheless, give us a sandbox and we will build profiles, vanity sites, products, commercials, microblogging clients and ten thousand other things. Why? Simply put, to be someone. “Personal branding” involves shifting the focus from the Other to oneself. The network that one chooses to be a part of shapes the image, helps build a sense of self and gives the Other a context from which to form an opinion about someone. Our name itself becomes more than a name, but a brand, a logo, a marketable representation of our greatness, of our strive toward fame.

“When one cannot save one’s soul, one hopes at least to save one’s name (109).” In our everyday experience, the soul seems to flee from us as we engage in various tasks. That elusive thread follows behind us, throws itself in front of us and projects itself onto us, faint and wispy. The name, on the other hand, is ever present, it is who one is to others (and to oneself). Reputation and name are intimately connected, are two sides of the same coin. The character in the old Western film declares, “Mah good name was a slandered.” In Japan, the family name is the first name you give when introducing yourself. The family name is the larger unit from which you came, to which you are still joined: your most precious circle. In American culture, the first name is one’s skeleton key to a world of unabashed self-creation and individualization. The way of the name may differ from culture to culture, but the value of the name does not. The name is conjoined with the human world, the soul sits between this world and another, the place before birth; it arises from the place of pre-birth.

On the “mania of reputation,” Cioran concludes, “If this mania were to seize any animal in its grips, however “retarted” that animal might be, it would press forward and catch up with man (109).” Thus far, no other animal has strived for the kind of otherworldly sense of reputation that us humans possess. We are the kings and queens of the imagined world, of the creation of our self and the responsibility to be someone. So, who are you?

E.M. Cioran – “Fame: Hopes and Horrors” from the book “The Fall Into Time.”

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Fame and Social Media: A Fragment

Emil CioranImage via Wikipedia Why are so many people, myself included, connecting to and engaging in online communities? Are “listening to the conversation” and “sharing,” the two main reasons that many of us participate in social media? Perhaps, it’s the spreading of “personal branding” that excites us, gives us the chance to personally manage and influence our online reputation. Or, is it something different? In an essay written in 1964 entitled, “Fame: Hopes and Horrors,” E.M. Cioran writes, “If each of us were to confess his most secret desire, the one that inspires all his plans, all his actions, he would say: ‘I want to be praised.’ No one will make such a confession, for it is less shameful to commit an abomination than to proclaim so pitiable and so humiliating a weakness, looming out of a feeling of solitude and insecurity from which both the fortunate and the rejected suffer with equal intensity (107).” Is Cioran’s way of thinking relevant to today’s flux of social networking sites?

What is it about social networking sites that fuel our desire to engage, to discuss or to network with unknown others? Perhaps, for some, it is the lust for “information,” having to keep abreast of new technological developments and web applications. The rush of being the first person to blog about a new development or news story constantly flows through my Twitter feed. It is impossible to engage in a “real” conversation through the use of micromedia, all one can do is comment or summarize. However, beneath the visual interface of the application, how do we communicate through these tools and how do they serve to influence our sense of self? Before writing this article, I announced through Twitter that I was about to start this article. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time and it provided a sense of connectedness to some larger body of people. What was my purpose, though, in sending that Tweet? How strange to think about how “connected” we all are through the interface of these machines. Perhaps, “deep down” we can relate to Cioran. How wonderful it would have been, had someone thought to write back a short reply, praising my efforts or showing some interest toward the endeavor. No one did. There is a kind of self-pride that flows through the use of these sites, an inflated sense of who we think we are and who we want ourself to be. Nonetheless, having 5,000 followers on Twitter doesn’t have anything to do with any kind of “conversation,” only noise.

The wish to be praised seems such a harmless one. The validation that occurs at a live performance or after a great speech fills the performer with a sense of validation and, perhaps, with the lust for more. Why do so many people want to be on TV, even as an extra in a non-speaking role? Is it because the work is easy? Is it because the pay is decent for the amount of work done? It seems that the world of TV gives one the chance to enter into a hyper-version of reality, a reality that feels more real than real. Why does it make people so happy to watch the misfortune of others through the interface of the screen?

In a productive society, the will to be creative, the drive to create and shape things, brings happiness. The sharing of those things with others also brings happiness, but in what ways? Is it the pure giving of the creation to another, a pure selfless act? Or, is it the feeling of pride that one gets when one gives the object to the other person? In Japan, when someone gives a gift, it is common to say something like “This is a boring gift for you.” Although, in native Japanese, the expression doesn’t translate as harshly as when put into English, the meaning is basically the same. The gift is verbally degraded, although it is probably a very nice or thoughtful present. This degrading of oneself is common in this situation. The recipient of the gift should praise the gift and the gift-giver. One only needs to look at the glimmer in the eye of the giver to see the happiness that comes from giving and the happiness that comes from being praised.

Is the way out of this flux, simply to turn off the computer and disconnect from the applications? Does this need to be praised surface in all other areas of our life? Is this our lot in life? If so…

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Cioran + Morita + Crowley

I found this aphorism by E.M. Cioran and would like to share it with you. It is from his book “The Trouble with Being Born”:

“To think is to undermine-to undermine oneself. Action involves fewer risks, for it fills the interval between things and ourselves, whereas reflection dangerously widens it.
…So long as I give myself up to physical exercise, manual labor, I am happy, fulfilled; once I stop, I am seized by dizziness, and I can think of nothing but giving up for good (192).”

A Moritist Connection

Surprisingly, we can see a similar line of thought in Morita therapy, which is the call to action, the way of thinking that by blending oneself with one’s actions, the pain and the hurt that one is feeling may temporarily pass, dissolve. I find it odd how difficult it can be sometimes to simply hang up the laundry when it is finished washing. I have been known to re-wash clothes that I simply neglected by leaving them. It is an odd combination of feeling relaxed by the sound of the washing machine and failing to do what needs to be done. How often do we talk ourselves into convenient excuses for failing to live up to our potential. And yet…

Questions

This aphorism leaves me with questions. Is Cioran suggesting that reflection is not a beneficial exercise to self-development? Perhaps he is leading us down the path of someone suffering from an extreme form of unhappiness. The last fragment “and I can think of nothing but giving up for good.” leaves us wondering about the stream of our thoughts and how overwhelming it can be if we let it run its meandering course without recourse to action.

Total-Immersion

I have been known to play music and have worked a lot in the style that could be called “noise.” In noise performance and improvisation, I have given myself over to the moment of the action and eradicated the conscious thought process as to what I should do next. Usually, operating through this form of performance, I listen to the recording afterward and am quite pleased with the results. I think that many people who create, whether it be music, fiction, film, art, etc. can relate to this sensation of self-forgetting and total-immersion. In fact, even working a day job can be artfully acted out through total-immersion in the task at hand.

Perhaps Cioran is calling us to approach that Blank state of minding the world, that Nothingness that rejoins us to the Earth and to the higher levels of existence simultaneously, that state that fills one’s very being when melded to action: the action of doing or non-doing.

A Crowleyan Connection

Although I focused on Cioran in this short piece, I would like to end with a quotation from Aleister Crowley‘s “The Book of Lies”, which proves relevant in this context. I have often returned to this passage and have passed it along to friends in need of consolation or encouragement. I hope you find it beneficial to your life situation as well:

“Practice a thousand times, and it becomes difficult; a thousand thousand, and it becomes easy; a thousand thousand times a thousand thousand, and it is no longer Thou that doeth it, but It that doeth itself through thee. Not until then is that which is done well done. Thus spoke FRATER PERDURABO as he leapt from rock to rock of the moraine without ever casting his eyes upon the ground (74).”

Indifference and Once-Occurence

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An email from a friend this evening contained an aphorism from E.M. Cioran. The aphorism (from, I’m guessing “The Trouble With Being Born”) is:

She meant absolutely nothing to me. Realizing, suddenly, after so many years, that whatever happens I shall never see her again, I nearly collapsed. We understand what death is only by suddenly remembering the face of someone who has been a matter of indifference to us.

For most all of us, our daily life includes the presence of other people. The boy on the train with the white earphones, the young lady walking under the streetlight holding a shopping bag while typing on her cellphone or the young man at the cash register of the discount store down the street. These nameless others are somehow part of life and not part of it. We sometimes see them and sometimes do not. Probably, we see them and forget them. Even after only thirty minutes I fail to remember the face of the young man at the discount store. On some level, he means nothing to me other than being “the guy that works at the store”. More so are the countless others that we may pass by on the street, at the train station, on the bus. For the most part it seems that we move in our own bubbles, bubbles filled with holes, openings for the others that we must interact with in daily life. Its not that I don’t like the person at the counter ringing up my goods, but its just that I know that it is probably only in this brief encounter that we will ever meet.

It is hard to grasp other people as the unique once-occurent happenings that they are. Other unknown people come bound up in their garmented state, alight perhaps with make-up or fumbling about with shopping bags and briefcases. Perhaps we ignore them. Probably we do. Even if we have a brief-run in with them, they fade a bit from our consciousness and disappear. The boy at the store who held the door, the smiling passerby, the bus driver…they all fade away.

For Cioran it is through the recognition of the unique existence, the pure only-onceness of the other person, that we can understand mortality. To say the words “well, we are all mortal” is cliche, but sometimes…sometimes…it is through this way of thinking that the realness of death as the ultimate happening, strikes us, grounds us and transcends us. The unknown others that one never had the chance to meet, that slipped away, are gone. The face of a friend’s deceased relative passes before the mind. The face that we didn’t interact with, the face that while illuminated with life, didn’t enter into our close communicative sphere.

The passing-away of an unknown other, of an other who we may have just only brushed shoulders with or the passing away of a childhood classmate strikes us at some meta-level, some level below the radar…there is something cold in it, something indifferent in the whole act itself…something chilling, perhaps. The chance to see that person again has vanished, they are no more. However, something lingers, that face again, that distant face which hovers and fades like a distorted image of a television screen filled with static.

I think that in this aphorism, Cioran has captured and transcribed a moment of lucidity, one of these looking through the cracks moments, and he feels death welling up…a death that calls him to realize our for-the-most-part ignorance of the reality of the other as a pure unique moment of space and time. I think Cioran is calling the reader to think deeply about those around us that we simply see but do not meet, hear but do not know and, perhaps, through this contemplation, we may savor something, some recognition of the other, perhaps even a compassionate complicity for the other. Maybe, this is hopeful…

The Signifying Wolf: The Haunting Fragility of “Wai Notes”

Wai Notes

It is a rainy Friday afternoon and what a perfect time to revisit one of my favorite albums, which is the rare gem called “Wai Notes” by Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Quietly released after BPB’s beautifully orchestrated/produced album “The Letting Go,” “Wai Notes” reframes many of the songs from “The Letting Go” through a much more lo-fi production and, moreover, strips the songs down to their bones, almost inviting us, calling us, to the nightime porch or cellar as an intimate guest. What really moves me is the ethereal haunting melodies of McCarthy as she drifts over the grimey (gorgeously grimey) songs juxtaposing with Bonnie’s tender yet hopefully dismal whispers.

This album serves as a reminder of that warm space that first drew me to Bonnie’s work when I was 16 years old watching Palace perform in the afternoon sun one day in suburban Detroit. Turning once again to my ‘eyeslitcrypt’ companion, E.M. Cioran as he writes, “Between the demand to be clear and the temptation to be obscure, impossible to decide which deserves more respect (from “Anathemas and Admirations, pg. 200).” “Wai Notes” plays with the two poles of clarity and obscurity and finds a safe meeting place for the two to revel. The mingling of obscurity and clarity comes through the hiss and muffle of the non-production, the at times sloppy strumming of Bonnie and the angelic overtones of McCarthy. It is through clarity that Bonnie greets us, but it is a hazy greeting, an ambiguous greeting. We receive this album as a child peeking into a basement window overhearing the rehearsal. That is, it it difficult to enter the inner space of this album, there is a haze of smoke floating across the basement window.

Why this album was released so quietly, I don’t know, but it almost seems that a gem like this needs to be discovered in such a quiet way. This album will especially ring true for those who have stuck with Bonnie through the years but may not serve as the best starting point to his work (I personally recommend “I See a Darkness,” “Greatest Palace Music” or “Master and Everyone”). However, I can imagine someone, say, after a devastating storm, being thrown from one’s house into a foreign place, moving among the rubble and finding a copy of “Wai Notes,” listening and discovering the richness of this world, these “notes” and finding a personal comfort in it. There is a haunting fragility to these pieces and an intimacy that glows with enchantment.

On a rainy Friday afternoon, this album colors the sky. The rain seems to melt into the speakers.