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Some Blind Alleys: A Letter

by E. M. Cioran


      I had always supposed, dear friend, that loving your province as you do, you were resolved upon the practice, there, of detachment, scorn, silence.  Imagine, then, my surprise on hearing you say you were preparing a book about it!  Instantaneously, I saw looming up within you a future monster: the author you will become.  “Another one lost,” I thought.  Modestly, you refrain from asking the reasons for my disappointment; and I should have been incapable of giving them viva voce.  “Another one lost, another one ruined by his talent,” I kept murmuring to myself.

      Penetrating the literary inferno, you will come to learn its artifices and its arsenic; shielded from the immediate, that caricature of yourself, you will no longer have any but formal experiences; you will vanish into the Word.  Books will be the sole object of your discussions.  As for literary people, you will derive no benefit from them.  But you will find this out too late, after having wasted your best years in a milieu without density or substance.  The literary man?  An indiscreet man, who devaluates his miseries, divulges them, tells them like so many beads: immodesty—the side-show of second thoughts—is his rule; he offers himself.  Every form of talent involves a certain shamelessness.  Only sterility is truly distinguished—the man who effaces himself with his secret, because he declines to parade it: sentiments expressed are an agony for irony, a slap at humor.

      To keep one’s secret is the most fruitful of activities.  It torments, erodes, threatens you.  Even when confession is addressed to God, it is an outrage against ourselves, against the mainspring of our being.  The apprehensions, shames, fears from which both religious and profane therapeutics would deliver us constitute a patrimony we should not allow ourselves to be dispossessed of, at any cost.  We must defend ourselves against our healers and, even if we die for it, preserve our sickness and our sins.  The confessional? A rape of conscience perpetrated in the name of heaven.  And that other rape, psychological analysis!  Secularized, prostituted, the confessional will soon be installed on our street corners: except for a couple of criminals, everyone aspires to have a public soul, a poster soul.

      Drained by his fecundity, a phantom who has worn out his shadow, the man of letters diminishes with each word he writes.  Only his vanity is inexhaustible; if it were psychological, it would have limits; those of the self.  But it is cosmic or demonic: it submerges him.  His “work” obsesses him; he continually alludes to it, as if, on our planet, there were nothing outside himself which deserved attention or curiosity.  Woe to anyone with the impudence or bad taste to discuss anything but his productions!  You will understand, then, how one day, leaving a literary luncheon, I saw the necessity for a Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of men of letters.

      Voltaire was the first literary man to erect his incompetence into a procedure, a method.  Before him, the writer, content to be tangent to events, was more modest: plying his trade in a limited sector, he followed his own nose and kept it clean.  Nothing of the journalist about him, at most he was interested in the anecdotic aspect of certain solitudes: his indiscretion was ineffectual.

      With our braggart, things change.  None of the subjects which intrigued his times escaped his sarcasm, his half-knowledge, his craving for controversy, his universal vulgarity.  In Voltaire, everything was impure except his style… Profoundly superficial, without any sensibility for the intrinsic, for the interest reality offers in itself, he inaugurated in letters our ideological gossip.  His mania for chatter, for indoctrinating, his porter’s-lodge wisdom, were to make him the prototype, the model of the littérateur.  Since he said everything about himself, and since he exploited to the last drop the resources of his nature, he no longer troubles us: we read him and move on.  On the other hand, in the case of a Pascal we feel sure he has not told us all there is to say; even when he irritates us, he is never, for us an author.

      To write books is to have a certain relation with original sin.  For what is a book if not a loss of innocence, an act of aggression, a repetition of our Fall?  To publish one’s taints in order to amuse or exasperate!  A barbarism with respect to our intimacy, a profanation, a defilement.  And a temptation.  I know what I am talking about, and I speak advisedly.  At least I have the excuse of hating my actions, of performing them without believing in them.  You are more honest: you will write books and you will believe in them, you will believe in the reality of words, in those childish and indecent fictions.  From the depth of my disgust, everything literary looks to me like a chastisement; I shall try to forget my life for fear of discussing it; or else, unable to accede to that absolute of disillusion, I shall condemn myself to a morose frivolity.  Shards of instinct, nonetheless, compel me to cling to words.  Silence is unbearable: what strength it takes to settle into the concision of the Inexpressible!  It is easier to renounce bread than speech.  Unfortunately the verbal turns into verbiage, to literature.  Even thought that way tends, ever ready to spread out, to puff up; to check it with a period, to contract it into an epigram or a witticism is to counter its expansion, its natural movement, its impulse toward dilution, toward inflation.  Whence our systems, whence our philosophies.  This obsession with brevity paralyzes the mind’s progress, for the mind needs words en masse, without which, turned upon itself, it ruminates upon its impotence.  If thinking is an art of repeating, of discrediting the essential, it is because the mind is a pedant.  And an enemy of any form of wit, of all those who are obsessed with paradox and arbitrary definitions.  Horrified by banality, by “the universally valid”, they address themselves to the accidental side of things, to matters “obvious” to no one.  Preferring and approximate but piquant formula to an evident but insipid reasoning, they aspire to no particular accuracy and amuse themselves at the expense of “truths.”  Reality

does not hold up—why should they take seriously the theories that try to prove its solidarity?  In everything, they are paralyzed by the fear of boring or of being bored.  This fear, if you are subject to it, will comprise all your undertakings.  You try to write; immediately there looms up before you the image of your reader… And you lay down your pen.  The notion you want to develop is too much for you: what is the use of examining it, of getting to the heart of the matter?  Couldn’t a single phrase, a formula translate it?  Besides, how set forth what you already know?  If you are obsessed by a verbal economy, you can neither read nor reread any book without detecting its artifices and its redundancies.  You finally discover that even the author you continually return to pads his sentences, hoards pages and collapses on an idea in order to flatten it, to stretch it out.  Poem, novel, essay, play—everything seems too long.  The writer—it is his function—always says more than he has to say: he swells his thought and swathes it with words.  All that subsists of a work are two or three moments: lightening in the lumber room.  Shall I tell you what I really think?  Every word is a word de trop. Yet the question is: to write.  Let us write…, let us dupe each other.

      Boredom dismantles the mind, renders it superficial, out at the seams, saps it from within and dislocates it.  Once ennui has seized you, it will accompany you to every encounter, as it has accompanied me for as long as I can remember.  I know no moment when it was not here, beside me, in the air, in my words and in those of others, on my face and on all faces.  It is both mask and substance, façade and reality.  I cannot imagine myself, living or dead, without it.  Boredom has made me into a speechifier ashamed of raising his voice, a theoretician for the senile and for adolescent, for metaphysical menopauses, a vestige of a creature, a hallucinated clown.  Whatever share of Being was dispensed to me is being eroded by ennui, and if a few scraps remain it is only because boredom requires some substance on which to act… The Void in action, it ransacks brains and reduces them to a heap of fractured concepts.  No idea which it leaves in touch with any other, which it fails to isolate and grind down, so that the mind’s activity is debased into a series of discontinuous moments.  Notions, sentiments, sensations in tatters, such is the effect of its passage.  It would make a saint into an amateur, a Hercules into a rag.  Boredom is a sickness that extends farther than space; you must flee it, or entertain merely meaningless projects, like mine when it drives me to the wall.  I dream than of an acid thought which might insinuate itself into things and disorganize them, perforate them, come out the other side—of a book whose syllables, attacking the paper, would suppress literature and readers alike, of a book that would be both carnival and apocalypse of Letters, an ultimatum to the pestilence of the Word.

      I find it hard to understand your ambition to make a name for yourself in an age when the epigone is de rigueur.  A comparison is inevitable.  On the philosophical and literary level, Napoleon had rivals who were his equals: Hegel by the excesses of his system, Byron by his unbuttoned liberty, Goethe by a mediocrity without precedent.  Today, it would be futile to elicit the literary pedant to the adventurers, the tyrants of the century.  If, politically, we have given proof of an unprecedented insanity, in the domain of the mind only tiny destinies fidget; no conqueror by the pen: nothing but monsters, hysterics, simply cases.  We do not have, and I fear never shall have, the oeuvre of our undoing, a Don Quixote in hell.  The more the times distend, the more literature shrinks.  And it is as pygmies that we shall be engulfed by the Unparalleled.

      Judging from appearances, in order to revive our aesthetic illusions we require an askesis of several centuries, an ordeal by silence, an age of non-literature.  For the moment, it remains for us to corrupt every genre, to drive them to the extremes which deny them, to undo what was marvelously done.  If, in this enterprise, we show some concern for perfection, perhaps we shall manage to create a new type of vandalism…

      Placed outside of style, incapable of harmonizing our debacles, we no longer define ourselves in relation to Greece: it has ceased to be our guideline, our nostalgia or our remorse; it has been extinguished within us… But so has the Renaissance.

      From Hölderlin and Keats to Walter Pater, the nineteenth century was able to oppose its opacities and to counter them with the image of a mirific antiquity, a cure by light—in short, Paradise.  A forged paradise, it goes without saying.  What matters is that it was aspired to, even if only to combat modernity and its grimaces.  One could devote oneself to another age, and cling to it with all the violence of regret.  The past still functioned.

      We no longer have a past; or rather, there is nothing left of the past which is our own; no longer a chosen country, no lying salvation, no refuge in yore.  Our prospects?  Impossible to disentangle them: we are barbarians without a future.  Expression not being of a stature to measure itself against events, to fabricate books and appear proud of doing so constitutes a spectacle eminently pathetic: what necessity impels a writer who has produced fifty books to write still one more?  Why this proliferation, this fear of being forgotten, this debased coquetry?  Only the literature of need deserves our indulgence these days, produced by the slave, the drudge of the pen.  In any case there is no longer anything to construct, neither in literature nor philosophy.  Only people who live by them, materially I mean, should take them up.  We are entering the period of broken forms, of creations in reverse.  Anyone can flourish now.  I am scarcely anticipating.  Barbarism is accessible to all: it is sufficient to develop a taste for it.  Blithely, we shall dissolve the centuries.

      What your book will be, I can guess only too well.  You live in the provinces: insufficiently corrupted, possessed of pure anxieties, you are unaware how much any “sentiment” dates.  The inner drama is reaching its end.  How dare a man venture once again upon a work that begins with the “soul”, with a prehistoric infinite?

      And then, there is the matter of tone.  Yours—I’m afraid—will be of the “noble”, “reassuring” variety, tainted with common sense, proportion, or elegance.  Get it through your head that a book should address itself to our incivism, to our singularities, to our lofty turpitudes, and that a “humane” writer who sacrifices to ideas which are too acceptable signs his own literary death warrant.

      Examine the minds which manage to intrigue us: far from taking the way of the world into consideration, they defend indefensible positions.  If they are lifelike, at least, it is thanks to their limitations, to the passion of their sophistries: the concessions which they have made to “reason” disappoint us, irritate us.  Discretion is deadly to genius; ruinous to talent.  You will understand, dear friend, why I have apprehensions about your complicities with the “humane.”

      As though to give yourself a certain “positive” assurance”, which harbored as well as suspicion, you have often reproached me for what you call my “appetite for destruction.”  You should know that I destroy nothing: I record; I record the imminent, the thirst of a world which is canceling itself out and which, upon the wreck of its appearances, races toward the unknown and the incommensurable, toward a spasmodic style.  I know one mad old woman who expects her house to fall to pieces from one moment to the next; she spends her days and her nights on the alert; creeping from room to room, ears cocked for every sound, she is furious that the event takes so long to occur.  In a larger context, the old woman’s behavior is our own.  We count on a collapse, even though we do not think about it.  It will not always be this way; one can even foresee that the fear of ourselves, result of a more general fear, will constitute the basis of education, the principle of future pedagogies.  I believe in the future of the terrible.  You, my dear friend, are so little prepared for it that you are about to enter literature.  I have no qualifications to discourage you; at least I should like you to proceed without illusions.  Temper the author champing within you, adopt for your own, with suitable enlargement, this remark of Saint John Climacus: “Nothing procures so many crowns for the monk as discouragement.”

      If, upon farther reflection, I have shown some complacency in destroying, it was, contrary to what you think, always at my own expense.  One does not destroy, save as one destroys oneself.  I have hated myself in all the objects of my hatreds, I have imagined miracles of annihilation, pulverized my hours, tested the gangrenes of the intellect.  Initially an instrument of a method, skepticism ultimately took up residence inside me, became my physiology, the fate of my body, my visceral principle, the disease I can neither cure nor die of.  I incline—it is only too true—toward things stripped of any chance of ending or surviving.  So you will understand why I have always been concerned with the West.  This concern seemed to you absurd or gratuitous.  “The West—you aren’t even part of it,” you pointed out.  Is it my fault if my greed for misery has not found another object?  Where else will I find so persistent a will to fail?  I envy the West the dexterity with which it manages to die out.  When I would fortify my disappointments, I turn my mind toward this theme of an inexhaustible negative richness.  And if I open some history of France, England, Spain, or Germany, the contrast between what they were and what they are gives me, besides a certain vertigo, the pride of having discovered, at last, the axioms of twilight.

      I am far from trying to prevent your hopes: life will take care of that.  Like everyone else, you will proceed from one forfeiture to the next.  At your age, I had the advantage of knowing some people in a position to initiate me, to make me blush for my illusions; they educated me.  Without them, should I have had the courage to face or to endure the years?  By imposing their bitterness, they prepared me for my own.  Armed with great ambitions, they set out to conquer some glory or other.  Failure awaited them.  Delicacy, lucidity, sloth?  I could not tell you which virtue cut across their plans.  They belonged to that category of individuals, whom one meets in capital cities, living by expedients, always looking for a situation they reject as soon as it is found.  From their remarks I learned more than from all the rest of my associations.  Most of them carried a book inside them, the book of their setbacks; tempted by the demon of literature, they nonetheless withstood it, so subjugated were they by their defeats, so full of disaster were their lives.  They are commonly called “failures.”   They form a type of man apart, which I shall attempt to describe to you, at the risk of simplifying him.  A voluptuary of fiasco, he seeks his own diminution in everything, never gets past the preliminaries of his future, nor crosses the threshold of any enterprise.  Rivaling the angels in abulia, he meditates upon the secret of action, and takes but one initiative: that of abandon.  His faith, if he has any, serves him as a pretext for new capitulations, for a degradation glimpsed and longed for: he collapses into God… If he reflects upon the “mystery,” it is to show others to what length he carries his indignity.  He inhabits his convictions like a worm in the fruit; he founders with them and recovers only to rouse against himself whatever melancholies he has left.  If he smothers his gifts, it is because he so loves his lassitude; he advances toward his past, retraces his steps in the name of his talents.

      You will be surprised to learn that he proceeds in this way only because he has adopted a rather old attitude with regard to his enemies.  Let me explain.  When we are in the mood to be effective, we know that our enemies cannot keep us from placing ourselves at the center of their attention and of their interests.  They prefer us to themselves, they take our affairs to heart.  In our turn we are concerned with them, we watch over their health, as over their hatred, which alone permits us to sustain a few illusions about ourselves.  They save us, belong to us—they are our own.  With regard to his enemies, the failure reacts differently.  Not knowing how to preserve them, he ends up losing interest in them, minimizing them, no longer taking them seriously.  A detachment with the gravest consequences.  In vain will he attempt, later, to goad them on, to wake the slightest curiosity about him, to provoke their indiscretion or their rage; in vain, too, will he attempt to rouse to pity his condition, to conserve or quicken their rancor.  With no one against whom to affirm himself, he will be imprisoned in solitude and sterility.  A solitude and sterility I prized so highly among these defeated men responsible, as I have said, for my education.  Among others, they revealed to me the stupidities inherit in the cult of Truth… I shall never forget my comfort when it ceased to be my business.  A master of every error, I could at least explore a world of appearances, of frivolous enigmas.  Nothing more to pursue, except the pursuit of nothing.  The Truth?  An adolescent fad or a symptom of senility.  Yet out of some trace of nostalgia or some craving for slavery, I still seek it, unconsciously, stupidly.  A second’s inattention is enough for me to relapse into the oldest, the most absurd of prejudices.

      I am destroying myself, certainly; meanwhile, in this asthmatic climate that convictions create in a world of oppressed men, I breathe; I breathe in my fashion.  Some day, who knows? you may experience this pleasure of aiming at an idea, firing at it, seeing it there, prone, before you, and then beginning to exercise again another, on all; this longing to lean over someone, to divert him from his old appetites, his old vices, in order to impose new and more noxious ones upon him, until he dies of them; to set yourself against an age or a civilization, to fling yourself upon time and martyrize its moments; then to turn against yourself, to torment your memories and your ambitions and, destroying your breath, to infect the air in order to suffocate all the better…, some day perhaps you will know this form of breathing which is deliverance from self and from everything.  Then you will be able to commit yourself to anything without adhering to it.


      My purpose was to put you on guard against the Serious, against the sin which nothing redeems.  I exchange, I wanted to offer you… futility.  Now—why conceal it?—futility is the most difficult thing in the world, I mean a futility that is conscious, acquired, deliberate.  In my presumption, I hoped to achieve it by the practice of skepticism.  Yet skepticism adapts to our character, follows our defects and our passions, even our follies; skepticism personalizes itself.  (There are as many skepticisms as there are temperaments.)  Doubt waxes by all that weakens or opposes it; it is a sickness within another sickness, an obsession within obsession.  If you pray, it rises to the level of your prayer; it oversees your delirium, even as it imitates it; in the middle of your vertigo, you will doubt—vertiginously.  Thus, to abolish the Serious, skepticism itself is of no avail; nor, alas, is poetry.  I have loved it at the expense of my health; I anticipated succumbing to my worship of it.  Poetry!  the word itself once led me to imagine a thousand universes and now no longer wakes in my mind anything but a vision of singsong and nullity, of fetid mysteries and affectations.  It is only fair to add that I have made the mistake of frequenting a good number of poets.  With very few exceptions, they were uselessly solemn, infatuated, or odious, monsters, specialists, tormentors, and martyrs of the adjective whose dilettantism, lucidity, and intellectual sensibility I had vastly overestimated.  Is futility, then, no more than an “ideal”?  That is what I must fear, that is what I shall never be resigned to.  Each time I catch myself assigning some importance to things, I incriminate my mind, I challenge it and suspect it of some weakness, of some depravity.  I try to wrest myself from everything, to raise myself by uprooting myself; in order to become futile, we must severe our roots, must become metaphysically alien.

      In order to justify your ties, and as though impatient to bear the burden of them, you claimed one day that it was easy for me to float, to flourish in thin air because, coming from a country without history, nothing weighed upon me.  I acknowledge the advantage of belonging to a minor country, of living without a background, with the unconcern of a tumbler, an idiot or a saint, or with the detachment of that serpent which, coiled around itself, survives without food for years on end, as if it were some god of inanition or else concealed, beneath the suavity of its hebetude, some hideous sun.

      Without any tradition to encumber me, I cultivate a curiosity about that displacement which will soon be the universal fate.  By will or by force, we shall all suffer an historical eclipse, the imperative of confusion.  Already we are being canceled out in the sum of our divergences from ourselves.  By constantly denying itself, our mind has lost its center, diffused in attitudes, in metamorphoses as futile as they are inevitable.  Whence the indecency and the mobility of our behavior.  Our unbelief and even our faith are marked by it.

      To attack God, to seek to dethrone Him, to supplant Him, is an exploit in bad taste, the performance of an envious man who takes a vain satisfaction in coming to grips with a unique and uncertain Enemy.  Whatever form it takes, atheism presumes a lack of manners, as does, for converse reasons, apologetics; for it is not an indelicacy as well as a hypocritical charity, an impiety to do battle in order to sustain God, to assure Him, whatever the cost, a—longevity?  The love or the hate we bear Him reveals not so much the quality of our anxieties as the grossness of our cynicism.

      We are responsible for this state of affairs only in part.  From Tertullian to Kierkegaard, by accentuating the absurdity of faith, Christianity has created an undercurrent which, now appearing in broad daylight, has overflowed the Church.  What believer, in his fits of lucidity, does not consider himself a servant of the Irrational?  God was to suffer for it.  Hitherto we granted Him our virtues; we dared not lend Him our vices.  Humanized, He resembles us now: none of our defects is alien to Him.  Never have the broadening of theology and the thirst for anthropomorphism been carried so far. 

This modernization of Heaven marks its end.  How can we venerate an advanced God, an up-to-date God?  To His misfortune, He will not soon recover His “infinite transcendence.”

      “Beware,” you might argue, “beware what you call a “failure of manners.”  You are only denouncing atheism the better to sacrifice to it.”

      Upon myself I am only too aware of the stigmata of my time: I cannot leave God in peace; along with the snobs, I entertain myself by repeating that He is dead, as if that had any meaning.  By such impertinence we hope to dispatch our solitudes, and the supreme phantom which inhabits them.  In reality, as they increase they merely bring us closer to what haunts them.

      When Nothingness invades me and, according to an Oriental formula, I attend to the “vacuity of the void”, it so happens that, crushed by such an extremity, I fall back on God, if only out of a desire to trample my doubts underfoot, to contradict myself and, multiplying my frissons, to seek in Him a stimulant.  The experience of the Void is the unbeliever’s mystic temptation, his possibility for prayer, his moment of plenitude.  At our limits, a God appears, or something that serves his turn.


* * *


      We are far from literature: but far only in appearance.  These are only words, sins of the Word.  I recommend to you the dignity of skepticism: here I am prowling around the Absolute.  A technique of contradictions?  Recall, instead, Flaubert’s words: “I am a mystic and I believe in nothing.”  I see it as the adage of our age, of an age infinitely intense, and without substance.  There exists a voluptuousness which is all our own: the voluptuousness of conflict as such.  Convulsive minds, fanatics of the improbable, drawn between dogma and aporia, we are as ready to leap into God out of rage as we are resolved not to vegetate in Him.

      Only the professional heretic, the man rejected by vocation, is contemporary, at once the spew and panic of our orthodoxies.  In the past, you were defined by the values to which you subscribed; today, by those you repudiate.  Without the pomp of negation, man is a pauper, a lamentable “creator,” incapable of fulfilling his destiny as a capitalist of collapse, an amateur of the crash.  Wisdom?  Never was any period so free of it—in other words, never was man more himself: a being refractory to wisdom.  A traitor to zoology, an animal astray, man rebels against nature, even as the heretic against tradition.  The heretic is thus man to the second degree.  Every innovation is his doing.  His passion: to find himself at the origin, at the point of departure of anything and everything.  Even when he is humble, he aspires to make others feel the effects of his humility and believes that a religious, philosophical, or political system is worth the trouble of being broken or renewed: to put oneself at the heart of a rupture is all he asks.  Hating equilibrium and the sluggishness of institutions, he shoulders them aside to hasten their end.

      The wise man, the sage, is hostile to the new.  Disabused, he abdicates: that is his form of protest.  Proud enough to isolate himself in the norm, he asserts himself by retreat.  To what does he aspire?  To surmount or neutralize his contradictions.  If he succeeds, he proves that they lacked vigor, that he had transcended before truly facing them.  Instinct failing, it is easy for him to be master of himself, to pontificate in the anemia of his serenity.

      Once we are carried away by ourselves, we realize that it is not in our power to stop, to cool off our contradictions or conjure them away.  They guide us, stimulate us and kill us.  The sage, rising above them, accommodates himself to them, does not suffer from them, gains nothing by dying.  In other periods, he was a model; for us, he is no more than a failure of biology, an anomaly without attraction.

      You defame wisdom, because you cannot accede to it, because it is “forbidden” you, you may be thinking.  In fact it is certain that is what you are thinking.  To which I answer that it is too late to be wise, that in any case it would serve no purpose, for the same abyss will engulf us all, wise and foolish alike, sane and mad.  I acknowledge, moreover, that I am the sage I shall never be… Every formula for salvation acts upon me like a poison: it defeats me, augments my difficulties, aggravates my relations with others, irritates my wounds and, instead of exercising a salutary virtue upon the economy of my days, plays a mortal role in them.  Yes, every wisdom acts upon me like a toxin.  No doubt you are also thinking that I am too much “in step” with this age, that I am making too many concessions to it.  In fact, I applaud and deny it with all the passion and incoherence I possess.  It gives me the sensation of a last act, hypostatized.  Must we deduce from this that it will never end, that the interminable coda will merely perpetuate in incompletion?  Nothing of the kind.  I foresee what will happen, and to enhance such knowledge we need merely reread Saint Jerome’s letter after the sack of Rome by Alaric.  It expresses the astonishment and the uneasiness of a man who, from the periphery of an empire, contemplates its disintegration and its inertia.  Consider this document: it is your epitaph, anticipated.  I do not know if it is legitimate to speak of the end of man; but I am certain of the fall of all the fictions by which we have lived until today.  Let us say that history is finally revealing its right side, and, to remain in the realm of the unspecific, that a world is destroying itself.  Well then, in the hypothesis that I alone can keep this from happening, I shall make no gesture, I shall not raise my little finger.  Man attracts and appalls me; I love and hate him with a vehemence which condemns me to passivity.  I cannot imagine how to go about saving him from his fatality.  How naïve we must be to blame or defend him!  Lucky those who entertain toward him a clear and distinct sentiment: they will perish saved.

      To my shame, I confess that there was a time when I too belonged to that category of happy beings.  Man’s fate touched me to the quick, though in another fashion.  I must have been about twenty, your age.  “A humanist” in reverse, I supposed—in my intact pride—that to become the enemy of the human race was the highest dignity to which one might aspire.  Eager to cover myself with ignominy, I envied all who exposed themselves to the world’s sarcasm and spittle and who, accumulating shame upon shame, missed no occasion for solitude.  I came thus to idealize Judas because, refusing to endure any longer the anonymity of dedication, he sought to singularize himself by treason.  It was not out of venality, I chose to think, but ambition that he gave Jesus away.  He dreamed of equaling him, of counterbalancing him in evil; in good, with such a competitor, there was no way for Judas to distinguish himself.  Since the honor of being crucified was forbidden him, he was able to make the tree of Aceldama a replica of the Cross.  All my thoughts followed him on the road to that hanging, while I too prepared to sell my idols.  I envied his infamies, the courage it took to make himself execrated.  What a torment to be ordinary, a man among men!  Turning to the monks meditating night and day on their seclusion, I imagined them mulling over crimes and outrages that were more or less aborted.  Every solitary, I told myself, is suspect: a pure being does not isolate himself.  To seek the intimacy of a cell, one must have a heavy conscience.  I regretted bitterly that the history of monasticism had been undertaken by straightforward mind, as incapable of conceiving the need to be odious to oneself as of experiencing that melancholy which moves mountains… A raving hyena, I anticipated making myself hateful to every creature, forcing them to league together against me, crushing them or being crushed by them.  In other words, I was ambitious… Since then, by dint of modulation, my illusions were to lose their virulence and creep modestly toward disgust, ambiguity, and bewilderment.


      At the end of these deliberations, I cannot help repeating that it is hard for me to discern the place you seek to occupy in our time; in order to inscribe yourself within the age, have you enough flexibility, enough of a thirst for inconsistency?  Your sense of balance presages nothing very helpful here.  As you are, you have a long way to go.  In order to liquidate your past, your innocence, you require an initiation into vertigo.  Simple enough for those who understand that fear, grafted onto matter, causes it to make the leap of which we are in a sense the final reverberation.  There is no such thing as time, there is only that fear which develops and disguises itself as moments…, which is here, inside us and outside us, omnipresent and invisible, the mystery of our silences and our screams, of our prayers and our blasphemies.  Now, it is precisely in the twentieth century that this fear is approaching its apogee, full blown, proud of its conquests and its successes.  Neither our frenzies nor our cynicism had hoped for as much.  And it is no longer surprising that we are so far from Goethe, the last citizen of the cosmos, the last grand naïf.  His “mediocrity” joins nature’s.  The least déraciné of minds: a friend of the elements.  Opposed to all that he was, for us it is a necessity and almost a duty to be unfair to him, to shatter him within us, to shatter ourselves…

      If you lack the power to demoralize yourself along with the age, to go as low and as far, do not complain of being misunderstood by it.  Above all, do not suppose yourself to be a precursor: there will be no “light” in this century.  Hence if you insist upon contributing some innovation, prospect your nights or despair of your career.

      In any case, do not accuse me of having used a peremptory tone with you.  My convictions are pretexts: what right do I have to impose them on you?  The same is not true of my vacillations; those I do not invent, I believe in them, I believe in them despite myself.  Hence it is in good faith, and regretfully, that I have inflicted upon you this lesson in perplexity.


--Translated by Richard Howard.











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