Some of the greatest innovations in modern literature have arisen in the aftermath of tumultuous occasions, awakening in us spiritual dilemmas that stir striking questions concerning our position within the world. Feeling abandoned, and unable to comprehend ourselves within traditional philosophical and historical frameworks, we reach instead toward more inward aspects—the irrational and incomprehensible.
Emil Cioran’s “organic man” is raised on these ruins. Faced with failing structures of knowledge and a human consciousness that has long been corrupted by order, ambition, and abstract constructs, Cioran returns us to a more primitive, fundamental mode of being; it stems from a “vital imbalance” rather than intelligence or reason. From this place of inner tension, he reveals a fragmented, anti-systematic expression of anguish: a result of thought’s own inability, and reluctance, to chart a direction toward its end, its completion. The circumstance of despair, therefore, replaces logic—or linear thought construction—as the state by which we launch investigations into ourselves. But while despair is a consequence of disorder, it also acts as a catalyst for the exploration of subjectivity and self-consciousness that reside outside of historical, cultural, and philosophical truths.
If Cioran seeks refuge in the cages of his own mind in order to sever thought from preconceived truth, Alain Robbe-Grillet endeavors to reinvent the novel in an attempt to disengage from what he terms the “sclerosis” of historical art forms. Considered the foremost theorist of the nouveau roman (“New Novel”), Robbe-Grillet argues that literature has no purpose other than to just exist. In rejecting the traditional novel, which assigns meaning to the world through schematic structures like the Freytag triangle, Robbe-Grillet positions the writer as a sort of “organic man” who, in his isolation and excavation of the self, forms no relationship with the world. Thus, the condition of despair in the works of Cioran, and the possibilities for a more meaningful expression of subjective experience outlined in Robbe-Grillet’s collection of essays, Pour un Nouveau Roman, both function as a means to distance the self from a consciousness that, while still endemic, has become tarnished.
Cioran’s idea of despair is largely informed by the decay of previous philosophical principles in which nature serves as a permanent, reliable structure for an objective vision of being. Susan Sontag echoes Cioran’s thoughts when she writes that “subjected to the attritions of change on this unprecedented scale, philosophy’s traditionally ‘abstract’ leisurely procedures no longer appeared to address themselves to anything.” Colonization, modernism’s response to the industrial revolution, and global warfare of unprecedented proportions all moved thinkers and artists to reexamine their perspective on our relationship to history, time, identity, and humanity. Additionally, Cioran argues, reason’s replacement of religion as the backbone of thought—a consequence of the Enlightenment—removed the veil of omnipotence that had traditionally propped up civilization. In his essay “On a Winded Civilization,” he writes that society “vacillates as soon as it exposes the errors which permitted its growth and its luster, as soon as it calls into question its own truths.” For Cioran, ironically, Enlightenment ideals of progress and discovery place civilized man in a permanent state of decadence: the meaning in his life now comes at the cost of being aware of his own faults, and working endlessly to repair those shortcomings.
Cioran finds a response to this shift from a once-reliable philosophical framework to an unsteady historical consciousness from anti-philosophers like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein. The most significant influence on both his thought and style, however, is Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche, Cioran believes that there is no truth, that truth itself is a systematized construct administered by history. Speaking of Twilight of the Idols, his text on cultural decadence, Nietzsche notes that the idol he recounts “is simply what has been called truth so far.” Here, the old systems of truth espoused from Socrates to Nietzsche’s contemporaries in nineteenth-century Germany are approaching their end. But while Nietzsche offers us the concepts of eternal recurrence and the Übermensch, there is no relief—or hope—in Cioran. His arguments return philosophy to a semblance of itself, its most fundamental activity: the act of thinking itself, of looking for an answer. Thought, liberated from abstraction and historicization, begins to turn back inward. Implicit in every possible realization are myriad apprentices, waiting to destroy their masters. This is the mark of futility:
Each time I catch myself assigning some importance to things, I incriminate my mind, I challenge it, and suspect it of some weakness, of some depravity. I try to wrest myself from everything, to raise myself by uprooting myself: in order to become futile, we must sever our roots, must become metaphysically alien.
In preventing his mind from producing a thought that will live long enough to yield something permanent, or even comforting, Cioran consequently blocks any context that might grant him some identity; instead, he forces himself into a constant dialogue with his own mind that has no meaning to measure itself against.
Inherent in futility is an unwillingness to persuade, to justify a rational truth, or to return consciousness to innocence—the last of which is an impossibility for Cioran. In this sense, philosophizing “becomes tortured thinking.” Thought and existence as posited by Descartes’ cogito ergo sum have, for Cioran, an unstable relationship. Beginning where others before him have left off, Cioran adds nothing new of value; rather, he provides an analysis—not of any particular pre-proposed problem or philosophical issue but of the mind that must, painfully, refuse to act. By seeking asylum in the complexity of the mind, for which no intellectual progress is possible, thought becomes speculative and sharpened, “the only claw a man has”—a worrisome fate.
A new language, anti-pedagogical and lyrical, erupts from Cioran’s solipsistic universe to give expression to despair. His philosophical meditations (not inquiries) are not so much didactic statements dressed in metaphor as they are confessions of a metaphysical illness that do not “argue the universe” but express it. Cioran’s lyricism is also the antithesis of abstraction, and thus it exposes the emptiness of philosophical language. But Cioran’s prose is more than retaliation against the formal techniques of the Western philosophical tradition; it also “represents a dispersion of subjectivity” that externalizes the inner reaches of Cioran’s thought and feeling. If “every thought should recall the ruin of a smile,” Cioran’s style, then, relies on suffering to gain inner knowledge. Within this interior reality, poetry is not the “perfect compensation for the miseries we endure,” as the French Surrealists would have it; it is the debt, never settled, owed to happiness.
France’s postwar literary landscape reveals that the aesthetic revolution of modernism—its experimentation with form and incorporation of theories that challenged prevailing notions of reality as informed by Freud, Bergson, Ernst Mach, Darwin, and Marxist ideologies—did little to relieve the anxieties of a globalized industrial culture. In Maurice Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure, published in 1941, the act of writing itself—charging head-on into language—takes precedence over what is actually being communicated. Instead of using narrative procedures that aim to shape our understanding or interpretation of a text, Blanchot forfeits history and culture on behalf of inner exploration. While there’s little in the way of biography about Anne, one of the “protagonists” in the novel, Blanchot shares this insight:
[Anne] finally conceived a strange feeling of pride in her body; she took a wonderful pleasure in her being; a serious dream made her feel that she was still alive, completely alive, and that she would have much more the feeling of being alive if she could wipe away the complacencies and the facile hopes.
By ignoring traditional character development, and instead revealing Anne through deeply internal, transient sensations, Thomas the Obscure anticipates the nouveau roman. Although there was no single aesthetic approach that defined its vision, the nouveau roman chiefly aimed to free literature, which was still measured in France by the objective realism of Balzac, from the need to bestow meaning (signification, morality, history), releasing the writer from the burden of his or her authority as a spokesperson for the world.
Perhaps the most recognized figure of this tradition was author, essayist, and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, who pursued in his fiction (and literary vision) a total subjectivity. While many critics wrongfully interpreted the overindulgent description and precision he took in presenting objects in his work as objective literature, Robbe-Grillet was careful to make a distinction between physical objects observed subjectively by the writer and an omniscient, omnipresent narrator with an objective, separated voice. In his essay “New Novel, New Man,” Robbe-Grillet writes: “the book reports nothing but his experience, limited and uncertain as it is. It is a man here, now, who is his own narrator, finally.” In the spirit of Cioran, Robbe-Grillet’s narrator—withdrawn and obsessive—does not present any particular truth but, rather, showcases an inner torment that results from a reluctance to acquiesce to the ways in which people had traditionally gained identity. By refusing to transfer the self onto objects, Robbe-Grillet fully isolates the self: makes it begin from nothing. The object in Balzac’s world—a mirror to reality, a symbol of our infectious dominance, a piece of property, a connotation—has a purpose: to comfort and inspirit; to remind us that we have meaning.
By contrast, Robbe-Grillet’s object in the novel, which has no relation to man, meaning, or reality, is not anything known in advance until the work has ended, just as Cioran’s thought begins from a conclusion. Furthering his argument for subjectivity, while continuing to contest the function of literature and theory, Robbe-Grillet focused, like Blanchot, on the act of writing itself as the genuine subjective experience: literature is no longer “what to say” but “how to say,” and the identity of the author is found in his or her form, not content. Thus the origins of literary expression as described by Robbe-Grillet are not external but stir from an interiorized consciousness. Herein lies a particular kind of freedom that Cioran praises in the “barbarian” or less-civilized individual who is uncontaminated by ideas of progress or how things “should” be.
Historical consciousness has its implications on the ideas of Robbe-Grillet as well. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s contribution to semiology—“language is a system of signs that express ideas”—had a profound impact on literary theorists in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Roland Barthes, for example, expanded Saussure’s ideas on signification to include connotative and mythical meaning, which represent a system of cultural values and established discourse. In addition to giving objects meaning or depth, signification—for Robbe-Grillet—serves to deny literature its possibility, its freedom from traditional standards of the novel, politicization (Sartre), and the bourgeois and socialist realism of Marxism. “Once there appears the concern to signify something (something external to art),” writes Robbe-Grillet, “literature begins to retreat, to disappear.” To release artistic expression from the constraints of signification, literature—and the writer—must stand alone, start from nothing, and never traverse outside itself.
Like every alienation, this one effects, of course, a general inversion of values as well as of vocabulary, so that it becomes quite difficult to react against it, and so that one hesitates to use words in their normal acceptation.
Robbe-Grillet’s self-inflicted alienation would be for Cioran an intentional futility. Literature stands not for meaning but the subjective expression of form—which, indefinable to external reality, alone constitutes the writer’s individual world. The renouncement of signification in Robbe-Grillet’s world is a relinquishment of metaphor, of anthropomorphism, which fates human consciousness to meanings and, therefore, reinforces humanity’s perversion of objects: situates humans everywhere. For Robbe-Grillet, this appropriation is characteristic of humanism. The writer of the “New Novel,” by not accepting traditional humanism, also rejects common nature.
Without signification, Robbe-Grillet’s individual does not seek to reconcile meaninglessness and estrangement. By merely existing—in other words, resisting the urge to bridge humanity’s spiritual gap with the world—he resists a consciousness plagued by division and redemption. Tragedy to Robbe-Grillet is severance, following Barthes’ assessment: “a means of recovering human misery, of subsuming it, hence of justifying it in the form of a necessity, a wisdom, or a purification.” Cioran says something similar: “Not content with real sufferings, the anxious man imposes imaginary ones on himself; he is a being for whom unreality exists, must exist; otherwise where would he obtain the ration of torment his nature demands?” But rather than pursue relief from tragedy, thus succumbing to it and reaffirming its systematization, its relationship to the agenda of humanism, Robbe-Grillet gives tragedy a permanent home in his consciousness. “Is it possible to escape tragedy?” he asks in his essay “Nature, Humanism, Tragedy.” His reply: “Today its rule extends to all my feelings and all my thoughts, it conditions me utterly,” adding that, like everything in the world, unhappiness is situated in space and time. Tragedy for Robbe-Grillet is not something to be remedied but lived with, free of utility.
Once free from traditional, historical, and philosophical frameworks, or at least cognizant of their limitations and distortion of consciousness, the writer is forced to look inward, confronting the dread of being alone and, at the same time, exploring the artistic freedom of being beyond moral obligation or external purpose.
Originally published in 1988 by Dalkey Archive Press, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is narrated by Kate, who is presumably the last living person on Earth, as she sits at a typewriter and records the activities and thoughts during her new life alone. Appearing to have settled on a beach, Markson’s narrator also recounts a period in which she searched for others who might still be left, suggesting she may have been mad (or possibly not) during this time. In addition to resembling the style of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus—which employs the use of propositions (“the world is everything that is the case”) that subsequently elaborate on or analyze themselves to steer readers rather than traditional literary (or philosophical) structures or forms—the narrative in Wittgenstein’s Mistress also resembles Robbe-Grillet’s “New Novel”: the novel is not pushed by character development or a discernible plot but through a series of vaguely connected statements—which are often unreliable, untrue, and contradictory—concerning historical figures ranging from Helen of Troy to Brahms and the minutia of the protagonist’s daily life, including burning pages from books after reading them or fetching water from a nearby stream. In other words, Kate’s narrative motion is propelled by the process of thinking rather than actions that arrive at meaning. This process, however, is never reconciled. Echoing Cioran, Kate’s thoughts fail to give any definitive answers; instead, each subsequent thought calls its predecessor into question. Throughout the novel, Kate recalls a line whose author she cannot place: “Wandering through this endless nothingness.” Ascribed first to Pascal then Nietzsche, this line and its origin interrupts her thoughts on more than one occasion. Each time the phrase comes to mind—Kate often not having any idea what she has been saying that has reminded her of it—a new narrative direction begins without her having solved who said it. Unable to connect her thoughts with certainty, she can only speculate on them.
It is equally important to consider the insignificance of history and culture that permeates the novel when the world no longer exists. In many ways, Kate is subjectifying history: she is, in Cioran’s words, “metaphysically alien”; the historical and cultural references can no longer be used as a crutch to reinforce her identity. What we witness throughout the novel are the labors of a self—always in doubt and questioning itself—that has nothing left to grasp, to hold itself onto, and the interrogation of a consciousness at conflict with a history that has fallen into obscurity. Additionally, there is no reliable philosophical system that lends itself to the world that Kate now inhabits. If philosophy was, ultimately, a study of reality, and if the Tractatus is a response to the limits of expressing that reality, then the reality in which Kate exists—which, again, borrows from Wittgenstein’s structure of propositions that result in “nonsense”—demonstrates the futility of philosophy. In this way, Wittgenstein’s Mistress and the Tractatus display a struggle to look at a world through philosophical questions that no longer apply.
The novel opens with, “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street,” a sort of cry for help and indication of her existence that Kate repeats while traveling and living in various museums around the world. Eventually she abandons her search for others, yet continues to write her messages. These messages, however, no longer signify anything or communicate her anxiety: “Obviously it did not matter by then that the messages were only in an invented writing that nobody could read.” The activity, still performed on the beach where she eventually settles, is disconnected from its intention—becomes futile. What had earlier seemed practical is now a senseless action whose value is only Kate’s own gratification. If for Cioran futility lies in each thought being challenged by the thought that had followed it, futility for Kate is witnessing the deterioration of her messages as they are being written.
Markson’s treatment of Kate’s “baggage,” her “accouterments,” further expands on Robbe-Grillet’s insistence that objects should no longer serve our desires or ambitions—should not represent, or affirm, our place or identity in the world. At one point in the novel, the narrator takes care to keep her objects with her, transporting them from one place to the next, even when this task proves difficult. Eventually Kate stops “looking” for others and decides to discard her baggage. In doing so, she actively steps outside of her reliance on objects, which have long ceased to provide comfort or mirror her reality. Initially she collected things that had been, at one time, important parts of her world, like a generator for staying warm or a phonograph for listening to music: in shedding these objects, she abandons that world and is left, almost against her will, only with herself. While physical objects no longer serve any function, Kate is still left with a different kind of baggage—the thoughts, which she cannot stop, in her head:
Though to tell the truth, I would have believed I had shed most of such feelings, as long ago as when I shed most of my other sort of baggage.
When winter is here, it will be here.
Even if one would appear never to be shed of the baggage in one’s head, on the other hand.
Without objects to confirm her identity, Kate has only thoughts in her head that are constantly in flux, her subjective framework through which to experience the world, as Robbe-Grillet put it, as “an emotional adventure of the most obsessive kind.”
Early in the novel, readers learn that Kate was once an artist—an occupation of her former life but now a haunting memory (she repeatedly notes that her mother says before she dies, “You will never know how much it has meant to me that you are an artist, Kate”). Eventually, in the post-apocalyptic world she occupies, Kate stumbles across a canvas but never actually paints anything. She thinks of what to paint often—Helen of Troy, Electra, Cassandra, Agamemnon’s death in a tub—saying several times throughout the novel that “it is almost as if one might paint the entire world, and in any manner one wished.” However, the physical act of painting an image is never performed, and never does she think of anything original to paint. For all the possibility of a white canvas, on which she paints “no less than four coats of gesso” and returns to on several other occasions throughout her typing, there is no transcendence.
While the world is crumbling in actuality, Kate still carries the “baggage” of history in her thoughts, though vaguely intact. When she thinks about what to paint, it’s never a new world as she can conceive it but a reproduction of past events flawed by memory. Her white, nine-foot canvas, therefore, represents her inability to either create a new consciousness or recover a history that had once given her life meaning. The canvas also represents a vestige of her former life. Markson is validating an essential argument of Cioran—that despite one’s awareness of and fruitless retaliation against knowledge, there is no relief from the omnipresence of historical consciousness.
Set against a backdrop of despair-inducing conditions, the modern artist and thinker have only an isolated, subjective experience in which expression seizes reality. As Georges Bataille puts it: “Experience is, in fever and anguish, the putting into question (to the test) of that which a man knows of being.” The freedom to exist unassisted by a valid, external, or objective superstructure leads only to observance and the absence of hope. Stranded in a moment, we can only explore ourselves from different angles or condemn our mind to thought, which makes itself known through lyricism.
There is, however, value in this freedom, dreadful as it may seem. For Robbe-Grillet, the possibility of expression without signification offers a way out of tragedy—the person who dissociates objects from their symbols “no longer needs an abyss in which to lodge” because the space between him and objects is no longer felt as suffering. Implicit in Cioran’s despair is ecstasy: “the experience of the Void is the unbeliever’s mystic temptation.” Thus, estranged and rebellious, the artist and thinker confers his or her impressions on reality and transforms it into something else entirely. What emerges is an expression that gives new meaning to our situation: neither surveyor or commander of the world, we can only ponder our position in a world that we revile, or, attempt to create new worlds for ourselves entirely.
Jared Daniel Fagen’s prose has recently appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Sleepingfish, and Minor Literature[s]. He is a founding editor of Black Sun Lit.
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