We met outside an inauspicious two-story yellow brick apartment building on Minnesota Avenue, in Washington, D.C., not more than a few miles from The White House. It was a cold winter day and our breath made clouds in the air. Cars honked on the busy street and, because it was freezing and the light had that crystalline quality of bright sunshine on a winter’s day, we felt optimistic. It was good to be in each other’s company. Andrew had flown in from Los Angeles the day before and Clancy had arrived from Kansas City just that morning. We turned this way and that, looking for Cioran. He was supposed to meet us on the street. He had told us that he’d be returning from walking his dog at ten ‘o clock—“our daily walk”—and that we should catch him outside his building. We’d arrived a few minutes early.
Then we saw a child sitting alone in a car seat in a parked SUV. We looked around to see who was responsible for the child. There was a loud knocking sound. We looked again, more carefully; sitting next to the child was Cioran, in a red raincoat; he was in fact feeding the baby with a bottle; he waved for us to climb into the front seats (the doors were open). The SUV was running and warm; it smelled of car leather and sour milk. A large, off-white, dirty poodle wearing a yellow bandanna barked loudly from the very back of the SUV while we spoke.
Clancy: Are you as disappointed as we are, Emil, in the current political situation here? You don’t seem very perturbed…. I’m anxious, enthusiastic, amused and terrified by turns. In short it’s entertaining, if nothing else, but it does feel like the end of the world is coming, which we all secretly hope for, as Murakami says somewhere.
EMC: Though we can endlessly debate the destiny of revolutions, political or otherwise, a single feature is common to them all, a single certainty: the disappointment they generate in all who have believed in them with some fervor.j
Andrew: I believe he’s calling us believers, Clancy.
EMC: The tragic aspect of the political universe resides in that hidden force which leads every movement to deny itself, to betray its original inspiration, and to corrupt itself as it confirms itself, as it advances. This is because in politics, as in everything, we fulfill ourselves only upon our own ruins.
Andrew: Not to be too tautological, but can we go from the political to the personal here? Because this idea that we fulfill ourselves at our own peril is so at odds with what the culture is constantly telling us that I’m guessing it’s probably not just an idea but a truth, an insight! I have only to look at what it can feel like to finish—successfully—something I really care about. For example, a book. I’m not talking about the sense of satisfaction that we can experience immediately upon completion of our task, but rather what comes next, and next, and next; I’m speaking about disappointment. Clancy, are you familiar with what I’m describing here?
Clancy: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpcohe used to say that we should march straight into disappointment. Maybe all of our efforts—the books we write, say, or the relationships we try to perfect and constantly fail at—are in some way measured by the disappointment. Of course, on that line of thinking, our current president isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, since he is such a huge disappointment.
Andrew: Right, and it’s enough to make me say, a la Emil, that creating and finishing something that is huge and that requires enormous personal resources—something on the order of a book—has some of the nature of leading a revolution, minus all the killing of course: one has to believe in it, to have faith in it just in order to sustain the kind of massive effort required, often at the expense of so much else (including other people and our obligations to them), and so, when the thing is done, when it has actually been realized, this massive disappointment can be generated in anyone who believed in it—namely the person who created and completed it.
EMC: Revolutions start in order to give a meaning to history . . . intolerance results from a hypothesis that has generated into a certitude.
Andrew: Exactly! I mean look at what a work of art is. In our struggle to give meaning to where there may be none (in human affairs, in culture, in the historical and the social), we sometimes transform an inspiration, a hypothesis, into a certitude—into a book, a work of art. And then—
Clancy: And then we can’t tolerate having been successful. You succeed and you have a breakdown. You find a way to undermine yourself.
Andrew: It’s as if the universe failed us by granting us the creative efficacy of God, failed us by robbing us of adversity, of resistance, of our Sisyphean status.
Clancy: Because what we find at the end of that completion, that success, is that paradise wasn’t arrived at anyway.
EMC: No paradise unless deep within our being, and somehow in the very heart of the self, the self’s self, and even here, in order to find it, we must have inspected every paradise, past and possible, have loved and hated them with all the clumsiness of fanaticism, scrutinized and rejected them with the competence of disappointment itself.
Andrew: I feel like you’re talking about desire, Emil.
EMC: That I can still desire proves that I lack an exact perception of reality, that I am distracted, that I am a thousand miles from Truth. “Man,” we read in the Dhammapada, “is prey to desire only because he does not see things as they are.”
Clancy: We desire things, we get them or fail to get them, and then we hope for more.
Andrew: But what about hope? Isn’t there a difference between desire and hope? I feel like desire is more about the self, whereas hope is or ought to be about others—what we wish for beyond ourselves.
EMC: In every man sleeps a prophet, and when he wakes there is a little more evil in the world…
Andrew: He’s drawing a line between hope and fanaticism, isn’t he Clancy?
Clancy: The wrong kind of hope might depend on ideology, and might make us into fanatics. Hope isn’t always a good thing. Cheerfulness might be preferable to optimism or hope—
Andrew: Because optimism implies a need for an outcome, right? Optimism is a kind of quixotism! What’s interesting is how often and strongly our culture plies us with optimism as a therapeutic solution, the idea that our optimism will yield results. How often have I or people close to me fallen for this? But it’s not very many steps from optimism—and, I guess, hope—to enforced solutions, to ideologically driven force, even policing and calling people out. Nietzsche called this a result of moralism.
Clancy: And he was right. These ideologues are the ones always telling us the way things should be, and at the same time so often making things worse. I prefer a good-natured sceptic.
Andrew: So do I! Good-natured, good-humored, with a sort of tragic knowingness. That seems like sanity to me, given the givens of contemporary life.
EMC: That compulsion to preach is so rooted in us that it emerges from depths unknown to the instinct of self-preservation. Each of us awaits his moment in order to propose something – anything. He has a voice: that is enough.
Clancy: He’s telling us we’re as susceptible to this as anyone, Andrew.
EMC: It costs us dear to be neither deaf nor dumb…
Andrew: I think you’re right, Clancy—crap! But okay, Emil, wait—what if hope is more of an internal thing, unattached to action. Can’t one still have hope—not just for ourselves and our own self-preservation, but for others, for all of us? Can’t we hold this hope inside—this feeling that is hard to put into words, because maybe it’s more of an intuition, or a spiritual attitude—can’t we hold it and yet remain free of the kinds of flirtations with ideology that leads us toward corrective fanaticism and ill consequences in the social and political realm?
EMC: A man who has lived among men and still lies in wait for a single unexpected event—such a man has understood nothing and never will.
Clancy: I believe he’s saying no.
EMC: To get up each morning as a magician or saint determined to populate your day with miracles, and then to fall back into bed ruminating till dark the aggravations of love and money…
Andrew: He’s definitely saying no.
Clancy: He’s trying to tell us to let go of it all.
Andrew: The problem with that, for me anyway, is that every time I’ve applied myself to letting go of things, the result seems to be more subjectivity! More selfie-ness!
EMC: The source of our actions resides in an unconscious propensity to regard ourselves as the center, the cause, and the conclusion of our time.
Andrew: That’s the thing: in the very act of trying to let go of the self, the self is front and center. Unless you can somehow tap into a great humility of the sort Alyosha displays in The Brothers Karamazov.
EMC: For those deprived of faith, an excess of subjectivity leads either to megalomania or self-denigration, to too much love or too much self-hatred.
Andrew: Your diagnosis is frightening me, Emil: it’s scarily on the money as far as my own flirtations with any practice of letting go. The results have been unpretty: either (and you nail it) too much love or too much self-hatred.
EMC: Either way, you spend yourself ahead of time. Subjectivity makes you either God or Satan.
Andrew: So, what—should we all just stop concerning ourselves with our selves and get through life as successfully as we can, following the rules of the culture we’re in? We should just try to “kick ass”?
Clancy: What if the process of letting go of the self includes a recognition of the primacy of the self? At least as a starting point. (As in cooking: you have to be very good at using recipes before you can stop using recipes.) All these distinctions–between subjectivity and silence, between action and inaction, between concerning yourself with changing the world, changing others, and solitude—might be part of the problem. So self-love and self-hatred, they are the same thing.
EMC: This is how we recognize the one who has tendencies toward an inner quest. He will set failure above any success, he will even seek it out, unconsciously of course. This is because failure, always essential, reveals us to ourselves, permits us to see ourselves as God sees us, whereas success distances us from what is most inward in ourselves, and indeed in everything.
Andrew: If I’m following you, Emil, success distances us from what is most inward in ourselves because it makes us the most like everybody else. People have this idea that success distinguishes us from others, but I’m thinking, here, that the reverse may be true. Success—at least as it’s conceived in our culture—is something everyone understands and can relates to. It’s a common value, isn’t it? Reachable by many, not very rare, and this sense something quite different than, say, greatness, with which success is often conflated.
Clancy: Fascinating—so, Emil is equating failure with distinction, with being different than the rest. Failure leads to individuality, which is why, by failing, we can come to know ourselves as God does.
Andrew: I guess I don’t see how we can see ourselves as God sees us, because, by failing (which I grant does take the blinders off) we’ll still see ourselves as, well—having failed. We still won’t be able to view ourselves with that sort of distance, that indifference.
EMC: The final step toward indifference is the destruction of the very notion of indifference.
Andrew: Clancy, I think this guy may actually be putting a positive spin of something for once! By ridding ourselves of our fear of indifference (to us), we can become indifferent to ourselves, and perhaps free ourselves to be different! It makes me think of the question that Nietzsche—wasn’t he your intellectual master, Emil?—puts to us in his Untimely Meditations, when he asks why, if we only have one go-around in this world, and we know we are utterly unique, why do we conceal our uniqueness—why do we think and act like part of a herd instead of taking pleasure in being ourselves?
Clancy: I remember that! He says it’s out of laziness and convenience, that we’re afraid of the troubles that being honest about ourselves will bring down on us. Telling the truth about who we are is like disrobing and getting all naked in front of everyone.
EMC: A well-balanced being always manages to slide over his depths or to thread his way across his own abysses. Health—the condition of action—presupposes a flight from oneself, a desertion of ourselves.
Clancy: Yes, acting just like everyone else!
EMC: When we act, our inner states count only by their relation to the external world.
Andrew: And that does make our minutes and hours and days pass easier, but it’s a kind of slumber, a getting-through, a lie even.
EMC: We measure an individual’s value by the sum of his disagreements with things, by his incapacity to be indifferent, by his refusal as a subject to tend toward the object. Whence the obsolescence of the idea of Good.
Andrew: That’s the strange hypocrisy of our culture—that we do, in fact, hold up most highly those who, in a sense, disagree with the culture, or at least with what’s considered the accepted way or view of things. At least in retrospect, often when they’re safely dead, we hold up the badasses, those who went their own way.
Clancy: And Nietzsche goes on to say this great thing about artists—that they alone despise how we cloak ourselves in borrowed manners and appropriated opinions. That, by their very vocation, they expose a hidden secret, the principle that each of us is a one-of-a-kind miracle.
EMC: Whoever takes it upon himself to attenuate our solitude or lacerations, acts against our interests, against our vocations.
Andrew: And lessening our lacerations, our pain and our loneliness is exactly what contemporary life seems so hell bent on doing, certainly from a technological standpoint.
EMC: Wherever I go, I pretend interest in what matters nothing to me. I listen myself, mechanically or out of charity, without ever being caught up, without ever being somewhere. What attracts me is elsewhere, and I don’t know what that elsewhere is.
(An awkward silence, interrupted by the cries of the hungry baby and the raucous, deep barking of the standard poodle. Andrew and Clancy look at each other with questioning, hurt expressions.)
EMC: A sudden silence in the middle of a conversation suddenly brings us back to essentials: it reveals how dearly we must pay for the invention of speech.
Andrew: Say something, Clancy.
Clancy: No way.
EMC: After having struggled madly to solve all problems, after having suffered on the heights of despair, in the supreme hour of revelation, you will find that the only answer, the only reality, is silence.
Andrew & Clancy (to each other): We blow.
EMC: I have all the defects of other people and yet everything they do seems to me inconceivable.
(Silence. Even the dog suddenly falls quiet. The baby looks at Cioran with curiosity and ferocity.)
EMC: Once you have come to set great store by silence you have hit upon a fundamental expression of life in the margins. The reverence for silence of great solitaries and founders of religions has far deeper roots than we think. Men’s presence must have been unendurable and their complex problems disgusting for one not to care about anything except silence . . .
Clancy Martin is the author, most recently, of LOVE AND LIES, a book length philosophical essay.
Andrew Winer’s most recent novel is The Marriage Artist. He’s completing a book on Nietzsche’s philosophy as a way of life, and a new novel about American religion and politics.
E. M. Cioran was a Romanian philosopher.