The New York Times, March 29, 2010
Drip, drip, drip — that’s what insomniac thoughts feel like, a leaky faucet behind the eyes. Last night the ideas were plinking; forehead-pounding regrets over past deeds, horrid fantasies, car crashes of expectations, unrealizable longings. It’s sheer torture. I don’t deserve it! Drip: Or maybe I do.
For decades, I have been spending my nights flopping around the bed and finally stomping to the medicine cabinet for anything that will put me under the waves. The story I recite to myself, often in the grips of sleep deprivation and to the rumble of garbage trucks, is that it all goes back to being awoken constantly as a kid by parents battling like Vikings in the living room.
I have done my share of meditation in that frayed state of wired exhaustion, but unlike the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran , I never learned to take serious instruction from sleeplessness. Born in Transylvania in 1911, Cioran hardly ever shut his eyes. In fact, at his death in 1995, there was exaggerated talk that he had not slept in half a century. Whatever his hours of slumber, the night watchman’s systematic reflections on the existential meaning of insomnia warrant the attention of our nation, which outpaces every country on earth in the consumption of sleeping medication.
The precocious son of an Orthodox priest, Cioran went to study philosophy in Bucharest in 1929. He published his first book, the lyrical “On the Heights of Despair,” at 23. Though he would come to publicly regret it, in the 1930s Cioran supported the fascist Iron Guard in Romania. He won a scholarship to study in Paris in 1937 and moved there permanently in 1941.
Cioran published a good deal in his native Romanian, but it was in his second language of French that the religiously atheistic writer found his peculiar voice. His highly aphoristic style recalls that of another insomniac philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. The titles of Cioran’s books ring like an acoustic necklace of despair. Take, for instance, these pearls: “The Trouble with Being Born,” “The Fall Into Time,” “A Short History of Decay,” “Anathemas and Admirations,” “The Temptation to Exist,” “Tears and Saints.” But from the beginning to the end of his days, Cioran’s thought gyred around the subject of sleepless nights.
Cioran, who was a friend of Samuel Beckett’s, is too relentlessly dark for most tastes. Writing in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik observed, “A love of Cioran creates an urge to press his writing into someone’s hand, and is followed by an equal urge to pull it away as poison.” I’ll take the poison any day. I find a brother in the beetle-browed philosopher critic of philosophy, and feel less lonely for the fact that there is, at least, someone who can acknowledge that we are tromping through a vale of tears. And while there will hopefully be much tenderness and joy on the path to our disappearance, there will also be much ugliness, agony, and cause to weep.
Indeed, Cioran once wrote that he would not need to write, if only he could weep at will. And then he moans, “But a negative reticence, aggravated by education, or a defective functioning of the lachrymal glands, dooms us to the martyrdom of dry eyes … It follows that we are all sick, and that each of us would require a Sahara in order to scream our lungs out …” (“A Short History of Decay,” p.43). Too much? Cioran uniquely connects the Muse with the capacity for exaggeration and the capacity for exaggeration with insomnia.
There are many poets who bow before the divinities of languor, however, scarcely anyone, save Cioran, pays homage to insomnolence. In a superb article, “Cioran’s Insomnia,” Willis Regier remarks, “Cioran treated insomnia as his defining experience and insignia. He lifted insomnia to the level of a love, a passion play, and heroic battlefield.” Regier registers this Cioranian paean:
…when you came, Insomnia, to shake my flesh and my pride, you who transform the childish brute, give nuance to the instincts, focus to dreams, you who in a single night grant more knowledge than days spent in repose, and, to reddened eyelids, reveal yourself a more important event than the nameless diseases or the disaster of time!” (“A Short History of Decay,” p.169)
And to take a page from on “On the Heights of Despair” (p.83) Cioran offers this blessing:
Just as ecstasy purifies you of the particular and the contingent, leaving nothing except light and darkness, so insomnia kills off the multiplicity and diversity of the world, leaving you prey to your private obsessions.
What strangely enchanted tunes gush forth during those sleepless nights!
Hordes of artists throw their arms around their melancholy as though it were the very taproot of their creativity. Kierkegaard, for instance, referred to his melancholy as his best and most loyal friend. Cioran felt a similar attachment to his insomnia. While he cursed his nocturnal suffering and used morphine, among other things, to try and knock himself out, he ultimately understood his long journeys into the sickly morning light as both crushing him and yet shaping his sensibilities. After all, isn’t wakefulness good? And sleeplessness a sort of wakefulness? “What rich or strange idea,” asks Cioran, “was ever the work of a sleeper?” (“A Short History of Decay,” p.147)
Unlike most scribblers on sleep and its absence today, Cioran did not ponder the biochemistry of shuteye. Instead, he fiercely focused on the subjective experience of, as Regier so elegantly puts it, “the sleep that would not come to bed.” Cioran also explores the significance of the fact that there is but one creature who cannot clock out for a break from the groaning of creation.
We have traditionally defined ourselves in terms of our capacity for reason. Cioran disagrees. We are, he thought, unique for our insomnia. He writes:
The importance of insomnia is so colossal that I am tempted to define man as the animal who cannot sleep. Why call him a rational animal when other animals are equally reasonable? But there is not another animal in the entire creation that wants to sleep yet cannot. (“On the Heights of Despair,” p.85)
A kindred spirit whom Cioran carefully studied, Dostoevsky hinted that the understanding of ultimate truths requires psychological conditions that can only be described as pathological. Of course, like his mage Nietzsche, Cioran did not find much to favor in the concept of truth. However, let us suppose that Cioran is correct, and the raw truth is that existence is a mad cycle of happiness and horror that ends with either getting it in the neck or in a noisome nursing home. If so, then what better state could there be in which to appropriate this truth than that 4 a.m. dread of sunlight, creeping in the window of the bedroom you’ve been padding around for hours?
NOTES: Editions referenced in this article: “A Short History of Decay” transl. R. Howard (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975) and “On the Heights of Despair” transl. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992)
Gordon Marino is professor of philosophy and director of the Hong/Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. He is author of “Kierkegaard in the Present Age,” and co-editor of “The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard.” His new book, “Ethics: The Essential Writings” will be published by Random House this summer. He is currently working a book on the distinction between despair and depression.