Thursday, April 1, 2010

E.M. Cioran and Hopeful Nihilism, Non-Action and Worrying, Choice and Time: Incoherent Ideas

So, I was raised by someone who identifies with nihilism, and so it has almost always been a part of my life since I started thinking about it. I would say my relationship with nihilism is complicated. Recently, though, I have been getting into a fair amount of nihilistic philosophy. Anyways, I am currently reading a book that I wanted to write about. It is pretty exciting at this point, and I wanted to throw a few things around. Mainly connections I see between Nihilism and Eastern philosophies of identity, action, and choice.

So, first things first, the book. It is The Trouble With Being Born by E.M. Cioran. Cioran was born in Romania in 1911 and moved to Paris in 1937 and lived there until he died in 1995, so says the back of the book. I find interesting that he moved out of Romania in 37, only a few years before some bad things started happening with WWII, all of which would eventually lead to Romania being a part of the USSR. So, fortunate that he moved when he did, cause he never would have been able to have the same career in the East.

As for the writing, he writes aphoristically. All lines/sections separated by the same symbol, divided into 12 unnamed sections. I haven't read a lot of things that are presented in this fashion. John Gray's Straw Dogs is organized in a very similar way, except he has chapter names, and subheadings for each small section. Gray actually quoted Cioran a lot. So that is why I ended up getting this book, because I liked Straw Dogs a lot.

So what is he saying? What is going on in this book? I am still sorta confused as to how to think about it, how to summarize or paraphrase it. But I guess the thing that interests me the most right now is the way in which he presents a hopeful nihilism. The universality of pain, the illusory nature of the self, the deterministic weight of history and chance, the need to transform yourself to attain understanding, and the ultimate futility of intellectual work, all of these things come glaring through in a way that makes me feel good. John Gray did a very similar thing for me. When you put these really central ideas to the test, things like the self, choice, knowledge, hard work, they start to shake a little; they don't hold as much water as I would have suspected.

I would like to use one quotation. Because I think this one highlights a lot of the ways that these nihilistic views can be seen as akin to Buddhist ideas, or Hindu ideas. Cioran and Gray both talk a lot about the Buddha and about other eastern philosophies.

Anyways, quotation: "X insults me. I am about to him him. Thinking it over, I refrain. Who am I? which is my real self: the self of the retort or that of the refraining? My first reaction is always energetic; the second one, flabby. What is known as 'wisdom' is ultimately only a perpetual 'thinking it over,' i.e., non-action as first impulse."

Now, I think this quotation is great. The way the self evaporates when we realize how multiplicitous and inconsistent our feelings are, how much we are capable of doubting and problematizing our own minds at every second. This last portion I italicized, non-action as first impulse. Along with the idea that the self does not exist, the idea of non-action is very important in a number of eastern religions. In Buddhism the idea of mindfulness amounts to an observant non-action, in Taoism the idea of Wu Wei means non-action and is associated with letting things take their natural course. Another Buddhist idea that I like a lot, and believe I read in John Gray: 'do nothing and your Will will be done.' This idea, non-action as the key to facilitating personal growth, or progress, or movement, or action, or whatever it is. But it means letting your inclinations manifest themselves spontaneously. I suppose sometimes you need to force yourself to go a little further, or to work a little harder. But I think the idea here is to let your unconscious mind run the show and trust that it will alert you to whatever things need to be done.

Think about worrying. Sitting around, worrying, feeling concerned that things aren't gonna happen, that you need to make them happen. I have thought about this before, when people say 'don't worry it will get taken care of.' And then there is the feeling, well, I have to make them happen. And sure, you will make them happen. But why is it that in that particular moment you are worrying about it and not simply taking care of it? Why are you thinking and not doing?

Well, this brings me to an interesting idea about the relationship between choice/action and time. Choice, and the action chosen, are always located at a specific point in time. It is impossible to make a choice unless we have arrived at that specific moment in time in which that choice can be enacted. In other words, choice is temporally confined.

I suppose a colloquial phrase communicates this in a way that I find useful: 'You'll have to cross that bridge when you come to it.' So, what does this mean and how do we relate this to non-action and worrying? First of all, again, this idea of crossing a bridge when you come to it recognizes that choices can only be made in specific moments in which those choices can be converted to action (i.e. choice and action, and thus time, are inseparable). Second, this can be seen as encouraging the idea of waiting, i.e. non-action. It tells you that you can't decide yet. It is not time to act, you have to wait until you can act, and trust that you are going to do the right thing at the time. Third, worrying, then, is an early and nervous anticipation of a bridge, so to speak. We know the moment in time in which we can take action is approaching, but the uncertain nature of that impending moment is disconcerting. It is hard to trust that we are going to get things done. Because when we think about it, it seems daunting. I dunno, this all feels very incomplete and sketchy to me. But, one thing I can say for sure, thinking about doing things is way harder than actually doing things. Worrying is harder than doing. Waiting is harder than arriving at moments of action.

Jeez, very related idea. When Cioran says that wisdom is 'non-action as first impulse' I think that is important. To have a frame of mind that doesn't worry, that is okay with uncertainty, that trusts itself to move from moment to moment knowing that it will handle whatever comes up; I think that is what this means. That we need to cultivate a frame of mind in which we don't lash out physically, but we take things as they are and we do what we will. Having plans can hinder things. Having a strategy seems deluded and unnecessary. The unfolding of moments always changes our plans. Better to rely on your ability to act on the fly. Better to just let things come and trust yourself to do what you need to do.

So let me try to wrap up somehow... I think a lot of the nihilistic stuff I have been reading lately has many parallels with Buddhism, Taoism, etc. Mainly in their emphasis on the non-existence of the self, the importance of waiting (non-action), and especially the relationship between waiting and choice, non-action and action.

Essentially, action flows from non-action. We can only make choices when the moment to choose comes. And we can only get to that moment of choice by waiting for that moment to come. So when we are up late at night worrying about what job to apply to, or where to move to, or what to do next, it is probably better to go to sleep and wait for a moment in which you are capable of taking action. Sure, you could apply for a job at 3 AM. Or you could make the moment for choice come sooner. But I bet there are many situations in which worrying is nothing but trying to force a choice that hasn't reached its proper moment in time.

So it comes back to waiting, being okay with uncertainty, and trusting that you will do the right thing when the moment comes.

One closing quotation that I read after writing all this that demonstrates the importance of waiting and choice etc.: "Time, fertile in resources, more inventive and more charitable than we think, possesses a remarkable capacity to help us out, to afford us at any hour of the day some new humiliation."

Time solves more problems than man ever will. Someone said that, too. I won't look it up now. But, time, waiting, choice, acting, all these things are wrapped up. They can't be separated.

Time and choice, acting and not acting, thinking and doing.

I like waiting. I like not reading. I like not thinking. I like not speaking. I like not writing.

They always bring me back to doing, reading, thinking, speaking, writing.

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