“The man who unmasks his fictions renounces his own resources and, in a sense, himself. Consequently, he will accept other fictions which will deny him, since they will not have cropped up from his own depths.”
BRAIN PICKINGS, 18 February 2019
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster,” James Baldwin wrote in a staggeringly prescient piece from 1953. And yet shutting our eyes is how we humans have coped, again and again, with our own discomfort and helplessness in the face of inconvenient realities — indeed, it could be said that our existential eyelids evolved precisely for this survivalist function, maladaptive and supremely adaptive at the same time. Virginia Woolf articulated the intoxicating chill of this truth: “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades.”
Our illusions are self-cast enchantments that sever our contact with truth by paralyzing what Bertrand Russell called “the will to doubt” — the vital moral faculty that protects us from manipulation and from the credulity Russell considered our “intellectual original sin.” It is a vicious cycle of delusion — one which W.H. Auden described in his incisive meditation on enchantment: “We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny… The state of enchantment is one of certainty. When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.”
To break the spell of self-deception, then, is one of the greatest moral triumphs a human being — or a society, or a civilization — can claim.
That is what the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran (April 8, 1911–June 20, 1995) — whom Susan Sontag celebrated as one of the most lucid, powerful, and nuanced thinkers of the twentieth century, a writer concerned with “consciousness tuned to the highest pitch of refinement” — explores in a passage from his arrestingly titled and arrestingly argued 1956 book The Temptation to Exist (public library)… [+]