Thursday, June 07, 2007

History & Utopia

from the diary: “Tuesday 1/19/88

“Am reading book of political essays: History & Utopia by E. M. Cioran, dense but kinda gripping.”

I recently had lunch with the poet Spencer Selby and he pushed me to read a book of aphorisms by E.M. Cioran. “He says everybody’s a hypocrite! And he’s right!”

The name sounded familiar. And it turns out I have read Cioran. January 1988. A book of essays.

The essays in History & Utopia were written in French, Cioran’s second language (Romanian being his first). The translation is by poet Richard Howard. Courtesy here is a passage (it’s on page 61):

“Knowledge subverts love: in proportion as we penetrate our own secrets, we come to loathe our kind, precisely because they resemble us. When we have no further illusions about ourselves, we retain none about others; the unspeakable that we discover by introspection we extend, by a legitimate generalization, to other mortals; depraved in their essence, we rightly endow them with all the vices, which, oddly enough, most of us turn out to be unfit for or averse to ferreting out, to observing in ourselves or others. … Let us beware of those who subscribe to a reassuring philosophy, who believe in the Good and willingly erect it into an idol; they could not have done so if, honestly peering into themselves, hey had sounded their depths or their miasmas; but those – rare, it is true – who have have indiscreet or unfortunate enough to plunge all the way down to the bottom of their beings, they know how to judge man: they can no longer love him …”

Is Cioran saying that it is not possible to love something (or someone) that has hateful aspects? Does he mean that a person who has poked into the horrors in his own being cannot honestly love – can neither love himself nor others? Only the ignorant (the innocent?) can love?

I think it’s silly to say we loathe others “because they resemble us.” It is more plausible to flip that and say we love others “because they resemble us.” Though I can’t say I know what “love” means in either formulation. I have never chopped off the head of anyone, but I have certainly imagined such a fate for my enemies, and I’m OK with that -- a little self-conscious about admitting it but sure that I’m far from alone in the imagining, even among pacifists. Does that make me “depraved in [my] essence”?

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