The Temptation to Exist

After so much imposture, so much fraud, it is comforting to contemplate a beggar. He, at least, neither lies nor lies to himself: his doctrine, if he has one, he embodies; work he dislikes, and he proves it; wanting to possess nothing, he cultivates his impoverishment, the condition of his freedom. His thought is resolved into his being and his being into his thought. He has nothing, he is himself, he endures: to live on a footing with eternity is to live from day to day, from hand to mouth. Thus, for him, other men are imprisoned in illusion. If he depends on them, he takes his revenge by studying them, a specialist in the underbelly of “noble” sentiments. His sloth, of a very rare quality, truly “delivers” him from a world of fools and dupes. About renunciation he knows more than many of your esoteric works. To be convinced of this, you need only walk out into the street … But you prefer the texts that teach mendicancy. Since no practical consequence accompanies your meditations, it will not be surprising that the merest bum is worth more than you … Can we conceive a Buddha faithful to his truths and to his palace? One is not “delivered-alive” and still a land-owner. I reject the generalization of the lie, I repudiate those who exhibit their so-called “salvation” and prop it with a doctrine which does not emanate from themselves. To unmask them, to knock them off the pedestal they have hoisted themselves on, to hold them up to scorn is a campaign no one should remain indifferent to. For at any price we must keep those who have too clear a conscience from living and dying in peace.

Anyone can escape into sleep, we are all geniuses when we dream, the butcher the poet’s equal there.

At best, we conceive happiness; never felicity, prerogative of civilizations based on the idea of salvation, on the refusal to savor one’s sufferings, to revel in them; but, sybarites of suffering, scions of a masochistic tradition, which of us would hesitate between the Benares sermon and Baudelaire’s Heautontimoroumenos? I am both wound and knife”—that is our absolute, our eternity.

Bluntly: my rebellion is a faith to which I subscribe without believing in it.

Even as we ransack our own diseases, those of other people regard us no less. In an age of biographies, no one bandages his wounds without our attempting to lay them bare, to expose them to broad daylight; if we fail, we turn away, disappointed. And even he who endured on the cross—it is not because he suffered for us that he still counts for something in our eyes, but because he suffered and uttered several lamentations as profound as they were gratuitous. For what we venerate in our gods are our own defeats en beau.

[…]everything that lives, every rudiment of existence, participates in a religious essence. Let us speak plainly: everything which keeps us from self-dissolution, every lie which protects us against our unbreathable certitudes is religious. When I grant myself a share in eternity, when I conceive of a permanence which includes me, I trample underfoot the evidence of my friable, worthless being, I lie to the others as to myself. Were I to do otherwise, I should disappear within an hour. We last only as long as our fictions.

Every work turns against its author: the poem will crush the poet, the system the philosopher, the event the man of action.

Every work turns against its author: the poem will crush the poet, the system the philosopher, the event the man of action. Destruction awaits anyone who, answering to his vocation and fulfilling it, exerts himself within history; only the man who sacrifices every gift and talent escapes: released from his humanity, he may lodge himself in Being. (...) One always perishes by the self one assumes: to bear a name is to claim an exact mode of collapse.

For all sensation is a bond, pleasure as much as pain, joy as much as misery. The only free mind is the one that, pure of all intimacy with beings or objects, plies its own vacuity.

Having discovered, at the end of her efforts, the realm of non-will, she rejoices, for she knows now that her ruin conceals a pleasure principle, and she intends to profit by it. Abandonment enchants and fulfills her. Time continues to pass? She is not at all alarmed; let others bother about time; it is their business: they do not guess what relief there can be in wallowing in a present that leads nowhere …

If, as Moses Mendelssohn maintains, Judaism is not a religion but a revealed legislation, it seems strange that such a God should be its author and symbol. He who has, precisely, nothing of the legislator about Him. Incapable of the slightest effort of objectivity, He dispenses justice according to His whim, without any code to limit His divagations and His impulses. He is a despot as jittery as He is aggressive, saturated with complexes, an ideal subject for psychoanalysis. He disarms metaphysics, which detects in Him no trace of a substantial, self-sufficient Being superior to the world and content with the interval that separates Him from it. A clown who has inherited heaven and who there perpetuates the wost traditions of earth, he employes means, astounded by His own power and proud of having made its effects felt. Yet His vehemence, His shifts of mood, His spasmodic outbursts finally attract, if they do not convince us. Not at all resigned to His eternity, He intervenes in the affairs of earth, makes a mess of them, sowing confusion and clutter. He disconcerts, irritates, seduces.

I have recommended you the dignity of skepticism: yet here I am, prowling around the Absolute. Technique of contradiction? Remember, rather, what Flaubert said: "I am a mystic and I believe in nothing".

It is a mistake to think of the expatriate as someone who abdicates, who withdraws and humbles himself, resigned to his miseries, his outcast state. On a closer look, he turns out to be ambitious, aggressive in his disappointments, his very acrimony qualified by his belligerence. The more we are dispossessed, the more intense our appetites and illusions become. I even discern some relation between misfortune and megalomania. The man who has lost everything preserves as a last resort the hope of glory, or of literary scandal. He consents to abandon everything, except his name. [ . . . ]

Let us say a man writes a novel which makes him, overnight, a celebrity. In it he recounts his sufferings. His compatriots in exile envy him: they too have suffered, perhaps more. And the man without a country becomes—or aspires to become—a novelist. The consequence: an accumulation of confusions, an inflation of horrors, of frissons that date. One cannot keep renewing Hell, whose very characteristic is monotony, or the face of exile either. Nothing in literature exasperates a reader so much as The Terrible; in life, it too is tainted with the obvious to rouse our interest. But our author persists; for the time being he buries his novel in a drawer and awaits his hour. The illusion of surprise, of a renown which eludes his grasp but on which he reckons, sustains him; he lives on unreality. Such, however, is the power of this illusion that if, for instance, he works in some factory, it is with the notion of being freed from it one day or another by a fame as sudden as it is inconceivable.


Equally tragic is the case of the poet. Walled up in his own language, he writes for his friends—for ten, for twenty persons at the most. His longing to be read is no less imperious than that of the impoverished novelist. At least he has the advantage over the latter of being able to get his verses published in the little émigré reviews which appear at the cost of almost indecent sacrifices and renunciations. Let us say such a man becomes—transforms himself—into an editor of such a review; to keep his publication alive he risks hunger, abstains from women, buries himself in a windowless room, imposes privations which confound and appall. Tuberculosis and masturbation, that is his fate.

No matter how scanty the number of émigrés, they form groups, not to protect their interests but to get up subscriptions, to bleed each other white in order to publish their regrets, their cries, their echoless appeals. One cannot conceive of a more heart rending form of the gratuitous.

That they are as good poets as they are bad prose writers is to be accounted for readily enough. Consider the literary production of any "minor" nation which has not been so childish as to make up a past for itself: the abundance of poetry is its most striking characteristic. Prose requires, for its development, a certain rigor, a differentiated social status, and a tradition: it is deliberate, constructed; poetry wells up: it is direct or else totally fabricated; the prerogative of cave men or aesthetes, it flourishes only on the near or far side of civilization, never at the center. Whereas prose demands a premeditated genius and a crystallized language, poetry is perfectly compatible with a barbarous genius and a formless language. To create a literature is to create a prose.

Ne e fatal, întotdeauna, eul pentru care opt?m: s? por?i un nume înseamn? s?-?i asumi un mod precis de pr?bu?ire.

Nothing more to pursue, except the pursuit of nothing.

The apprenticeship to passivity—I know nothing more contrary to our habits. (The modern age begins with two hysterics: Don Quixote and Luther.) If we make time, produce and elaborate it, we do so out of our repugnance to the hegemony of essence and to the contemplative submission it presupposes. Taoism seems to me wisdom’s first and last word: yet I resist it, my instincts reject it, as they refuse to endure anything—the heredity of revolt is too much for us. Our disease? Centuries of attention to time, the idolatry of becoming. What recourse to China or India will heal us?

The man too lucid to worship will also be too lucid to wreck, or will wreck only his … rebellions; for what is the use of rebelling only to discover, afterwards, a universe intact? A paltry monologue.

The moments of refinement conceal a death-principle: nothing is more fragile than subtlety. The abuse of it leads to the catechisms, an end to dialectical games, the collapse of an intellect which instinct no longer assists. The ancient philosophy, trapped in its scruples, had in spite of itself opened the way to the artlessness of the lower depths; religious sects pullulated; the schools gave way to the cults. An analogous defeat threatens us: already the ideologies are rampant, the degraded mythologies which will reduce and annihilate us. We shall not be able to sustain the ceremony of our contradictions much longer. Many are prepared to venerate any idol, to serve any truth, so long as one and the other be imposed upon them, so long as they need not make the effort to choose their shame or their disaster.
Whatever the world to come, the Western peoples will play in it the part of the Graeculi in the Roman Empire. Sought out and despised by the new conqueror, they will have, in order to impress him, only the jugglery of their intelligence or the luster of their past. The art of surviving oneself—they are already distinguished in that. Symptoms of exhaustion are everywhere: Germany has given her measure in music: what leads us to believe that she will excel in it again? She has used up the resources of her profundity, as France those of her elegance. Both—and with them, this entire corner of the world—are on the verge of bankruptcy, the most glamorous since antiquity. Then will come the liquidation: a prospect which is not a negligible one, a respite whose duration cannot be estimated, a period of facility in which each man, before the deliverance finally at hand, will be happy to have behind him the throes of hope and expectation.

The sphere of consciousness shrinks in action; no one who acts can lay claim to the universal, for to act is to cling to the properties of being at the expense of being itself, to a form of reality to reality’s detriment.

The tired intellectual sums up the deformities and the vices of a world adrift. He does not act, he suffers; if he favors the notion of tolerance, he does not find in it the stimulant he needs. Tyranny furnishes that, as do the doctrines of which it is the outcome. If he is the first of its victims, he will not complain: only the strength that grinds him into the dust seduces him. To want to be free is to want to be oneself; but he is tired of being himself, of blazing a trail into uncertainty, of stumbling through truths. “Bind me with the chains of Illusion,” he sighs, even as he says farewell to the peregrinations of Knowledge. Thus he will fling himself, eyes closed, into any mythology which will assure him the protection and the peace of the yoke. Declining the honor of assuming his own anxieties, he will engage in enterprises from which he anticipates sensations he could not derive from himself, so that the excesses of his lassitude will confirm the tyrannies. Churches, ideologies, police—seek out their origin in the horror he feels for his own lucidity, rather than in the stupidity of the masses. This weakling transforms himself, in the name of a know-nothing utopia, into a gravedigger of the intellect; convinced of doing something useful, he prostitutes Pascal’s old “abêtissezvous,” the Solitary’s tragic device.
A routed iconoclast, disillusioned with paradox and provocation, in search of impersonality and routine, half prostrated, ripe for the stereotype, the tired intellectual abdicates his singularity and rejoins the rabble. Nothing more to overturn, if not himself: the last idol to smash … His own debris lures him on. While he contemplates it, he shapes the idol of new gods or restores the old ones by baptizing them with new names. Unable to sustain the dignity of being fastidious, less and less inclined to winnow truths, he is content with those he is offered. By-product of his ego, he proceeds—a wrecker gone to seed—to crawl before the altars, or before what takes their place. In the temple or on the tribunal, his place is where there is singing, or shouting—no longer a chance to hear one’s own voice. A parody of belief? It matters little to him, since all he aspires to is to desist from himself. All his philosophy has concluded in a refrain, all his pride foundered on a Hosanna!
Let us be fair: as things stand now, what else could he do? Europe’s charm, her originality resided in the acuity of her critical spirit, in her militant, aggressive skepticism; this skepticism has had its day. Hence the intellectual, frustrated in his doubts, seeks out the compensations of dogma. Having reached the confines of analysis, struck down by the void he discovers there, he turns on his heel and attempts to seize the first certainty to come along; but he lacks the naiveté to hold onto it; henceforth, a fanatic without convictions, he is no more than an ideologist, a hybrid thinker, such as we find in all transitional periods. Participating in two different styles, he is, by the form of his intelligence, a tributary of the one of the one which is vanishing, and by the ideas he defends, of the one which is appearing. To understand him better, let us imagine an Augustine half-converted, drifting and tacking, and borrowing from Christianity only its hatred of the ancient world. Are we not in a period symmetrical with the one which saw the birth of The City of God? It is difficult to conceive of a book more timely. Today as then, men’s minds need a simple truth, an answer which delivers them from their questions, a gospel, a tomb.

To what temptations, to what extremities does lucidity lead! Shall we desert it now to take refuge in unconsciousness? Anyone can escape into sleep, we are all geniuses when we dream, the butcher the poet’s equal there. But our perspicacity cannot bear that such a marvel should endure, nor that inspiration should be brought within everyone’s grasp; daylight strips us of the night’s gifts. Only the madman enjoys the privilege of passing smoothly from a nocturnal to a daylight existence: no distinction between his dreams and his waking. He has renounced our reason, as the beggar has renounced our belongings. Both have found a way that leads beyond suffering and solved all our problems; hence they remain examples we cannot follow, saviors without adepts.

Try as we will to take the “cure” of ineffectuality; to meditate on the Taoist fathers’ doctrine of submission, of withdrawal, of a sovereign absence; to follow, like them, the course of consciousness once it ceases to be at grips with the world and weds the form of things as water does, their favorite element—we shall never succeed. They scorn both our curiosity and our thirst for suffering; in which they differ from the mystics, and especially from the medieval ones, so apt to recommend the virtues of the hair shirt, the scourge, insomnia, inanition, and lament.
“A life of intensity is contrary to the Tao,” teaches Lao Tse, a normal man if ever there was one. But the Christian virus torments us: heirs of the flagellants, it is by refining our excruciations that we become conscious of ourselves. Is religion declining? We perpetuate its extravagances, as we perpetuate the macerations and the cell-shrieks of old, our will to suffer equaling that of the monasteries in their heyday. If the Church no longer enjoys a monopoly on hell, it has nonetheless riveted us to a chain of sighs, to the cult of the ordeal, of blasted joys and jubilant despair.
The mind, as well as the body, pays for “a life of intensity.” Masters in the art of thinking against oneself, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, and Dostoevsky have taught us to side with our dangers, to broaden the sphere of our diseases, to acquire existence by division from our being. And what for the great Chinaman was a symbol of failure, a proof of imperfection, constitutes for us the sole mode of possessing, of making contact with ourselves.

We breathe too fast to be able to grasp things in themselves or to expose their fragility. Our panting postulates and distorts them, creates and disfigures them, and binds us to them. I bestir myself, therefore I emit a world as suspect as my speculation which justifies it; I espouse movement, which changes me into a generator of being, into an artisan of fictions, while my cosmogonic verve makes me forget that, led on by the whirlwind of acts, I am nothing but an acolyte of time, an agent of decrepit universes. (...)

If we would regain our freedom, we must shake off the burden of sensation, no longer react to the world by our senses, break our bonds. For all sensation is a bond, pleasure as much as pain, joy as much as misery. The only free mind is the one that, pure of all intimacy with beings or objects, plies its own vacuity.