Tag Archives: Emil Cioran

Traveling with Pessoa: “The universe isn’t mine: it’s me.”

         My travel companion for my train trip to St. Catharines to read at the Grey Borders Series was, it turns out, allergic to travel. Looking out of train windows gave him an overwhelming feeling of ennui, though he expressed his neurasthenic tedium with poetic melancholy. He was Fernando Pessoa (or rather, one of his many heteronyms, Bernardo Soares) in the form of The Book of Disquiet, a series of short, introspective prose pieces. I had thumbed through it at Nicholas Hoare Books, and Pessoa’s sensibility in these fleeting but often brilliant meditations reminded me of Emil Cioran’s existential darkness in A Short History of Decay. Even though travel, which I love, was anathema to Pessoa’s Soares, I decided the book would be ideal train reading: something I could dip into, put down, ruminate on, and pick up again. Flashes of philosophical introspection and train travel were made for each other.
         There’s a visceral poetry to the experience of riding a train, which Blaise Cendrars understood so beautifully in his long poem “Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France.” And my journey with The Book of Disquiet was the richer that Pessoa’s poetic prose harmonized with the rhythmic sways and bumps of the train:

                           The idea of travelling nauseates me.
                           I’ve already seen what I’ve never seen.
                           I’ve already seen what I have yet to see.
                  . . .
                           Landscapes are repetitions. On a simple train ride
                  I uselessly and restlessly waver between my inattention
                  to the landscape and my inattention to the book
                  that would amuse me if I were someone else. Life
                  makes me feel a vague nausea, and any kind of
                  movement aggravates it.
                           Only landscapes that don’t exist and books I’ll
                  never read aren’t tedious. Life, for me, is a
                  drowsiness that never reaches the brain. This
                  I keep free, so that I can be sad there.

         I also brought along my new video camera, which became an extension of my fascination with the constantly-shifting scenery from train windows. There’s something infinitely expansive about the poetic, otherworldly, and metaphorical possibilities of the view from a train window. Visually, views within and outside trains are multi-layered. The view outside is a palimpsest of successive layers moving at different speeds depending on their distance: the blur of rails and gravel, the telephone poles flowing by and their wires complexly crisscrossing against the sky, the foreground (slagheaps, warehouses, rows of trucks or crops, houses, other trains), and the horizon (greenery, water). Then there’s the window itself, which might be streaked with rain but which always reflects a ghostly veneer of the interior scene: the ceiling lights, the young woman reading a book opposite me, the frames of windows on the other side of the train.
         And there’s a difference between watching the scenery rush toward you and watching it get sucked away from you, and that difference translates into contrasting psychological states, at least for me. Since our cognitive metaphors shape our experience of time (the future approaches us and the past recedes into the distance), the head-on perspective creates the optimism of moving into the future and the other, the melancholy of watching the present frittering away from you and your ability to change it.
         I think what I love so much about train travel is its artifice, its literary qualities. And it’s the metaphorical and philosophical dimensions of travel where Pessoa and I find common ground. A passage I found myself returning to during my trip:

                  Eternal tourists of ourselves, there is no
                  landscape but what we are. We possess nothing,
                  for we don’t even possess ourselves. We have
                  nothing because we are nothing. What hand
                  will I reach out, and to what universe? The
                  universe isn’t mine: it’s me.

         Like Borges and his insistent refrain that “There is no whole self,” Pessoa set about dissolving the notion of a unitary Cartesian identity. And like the ephemeral scenery from a train, the self relentlessly renews itself and enters the present with continually shifting points of reference.
         The video below is a short film I made from scenes between Toronto and St. Catharines. As I edited the film I found that I was creating a somewhat artificial narrative of the trip: the departure, the stops along the way, the rain followed by blue skies. The film doesn’t have an arrival; it ends with a long view of puffy clouds. And the final scene reminds me of a passage in The Book of Disquiet describing Soares’ business trip:

                  The train slows down, we’re at Cais do Sodré.
                  I’ve arrived at Lisbon, but not at a conclusion.

Camille Martin

Emil Cioran: “Unconscious Dogmas”

“Unconscious Dogmas”
from A Short History of Decay by Emil Cioran

          We are in a position to penetrate someone’s mistake, to show him the inanity of his plans and intensions; but how wrest him from his persistence in time, when he conceals a fanaticism as inveterate as his instincts, as old as his prejudices? We bear within us—like an unchallengeable treasure—an amalgam of unworthy beliefs and certitudes. And even the man who manages to rid himself of them, to vanquish them, remains—in the desert of his lucidity—a fanatic still: a fanatic of himself, of his own existence; he has scoured all his obsessions, except for the terrain where they flourish; he has lost all his fixed points, except for the fixity from which they proceed. Life has dogmas more immutable than theology, each existence being anchored in infallibilities which exceed all the lucubrations of madness or of faith. Even the skeptic, in love with his doubts, turns out to be a fanatic of skepticism. Man is the dogmatic being par exellence, and his dogmas are all the deeper when he does not formulate them, when he is unaware of them, and when he follows them.
          We all believe in many more things than we think, we harbor intolerances, we cherish bloody prejudices, and, defending our ideas with extreme means, we travel the world like ambulatory and irrefragable fortresses. Each of us is a supreme dogma to himself, no theology protects its god as we protect our self; and if we assail this self with doubts and call it into question we do so only by a pseudo-elegance of our pride: the case is already won.
          How escape the absolute of oneself? One would have to imagine a being without instincts, without a name, and to whom his own image would be unknown. But everything in the world gives us back our own features; night itself is never dark enough to keep us from being reflected in it. Too present to ourselves, our non-existence before birth and after death influences us only as a notion and only for a few moments, we experience the fever of our duration as an eternity, which falters but which nonetheless remains inexhaustible in its principle.
          The man who does no adore himself is yet to be born. Everything that lives loves itself; if not, what would be the source of the dread which breaks out in the depths and on the surfaces of life? Each of us is, for himself, the one fixed point in the universe. And if someone dies for an idea, it is because it is his idea, and his idea is his life.
          No critique of any kind of reason will waken man from his “dogmatic sleep.” It may shake the unconscious certitudes which abound in his philosophy and substitute more flexible propositions for his rigid affirmations, but how, by a rational procedure, will it manage to shake the creature, huddled over its own dogmas, without bringing about its very death?