Emil Cioran

Histoire et Utopie



Whenever I happen to be in a city of any size, I marvel that riots do not break out every day: massacres, unspeakable carnage, a doomsday chaos. How can so many human beings coexist in a space so confined without destroying each other, without hating each other to death? As a matter of fact, they do hate each other, but they are not equal to their hatred. And it is this mediocrity, this impotence which saves society, which assures its continuance, its stability. Occasionally some shock occurs by which our instincts profit; but afterwards we go on looking each other in the face as if nothing had happened, cohabiting without too obviously tearing each other to shreds. Order is restored, a ferocious calm as dreadful, ultimately, as the frenzy which had interrupted it.

Yet I marvel still more that some of us, society being what it is, have ventured to conceive another one altogether—a different society. What can be the cause of so much naïveté, or of so much inanity? If the question is normal enough, even ordinary, the curiosity which led me to ask it, on the other hand, has the excuse of being morbid.

Seeking new evidence, and just as I despaired of finding anything of the kind, it occurred to me to consult Utopian literature, to steep myself in its “masterpieces,” to wallow in them. There, to my great delight, I sated my penitential longings, my appetite for mortification. To spend months recording the dreams of a better future, of an “ideal” society, devouring the unreadable—what a windfall! I hasten to add that this tedious literature has much to teach, and that time spent frequenting it is not entirely wasted. From the start, one discerns in it the (fruitful or calamitous) role taken, in the genesis of events, not by happiness but by the idea of happiness, an idea which explains—the Age of Iron being coextensive with history—why each epoch so eagerly invokes the Age of Gold. Suppose we put an end to such speculations: total stagnation would ensue. For we act only under the fascination of the impossible: which is to say that a society incapable of generating—and of dedicating itself to—a utopia is threatened with sclerosis and collapse. Wisdom-fascinated by nothing—recommends an existing, a given happiness; which man rejects, and by this very rejection becomes an historical animal, i.e., a devotee of imagined happiness.

“A new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…” we read in Revelations. Cross out heaven, just keep the “new earth” and you have the secret and the recipe of all utopian systems; for greater precision, perhaps you should put “city” for “earth”; but that is only a detail; what counts is the prospect of a new advent, the fever of an essential expectation—a debased, modernized parousia from which arise those systems so dear to the disinherited. Poverty is in fact the utopianist’s great auxiliary, it is the matter he works in, the substance on which he feeds his thoughts, the providence of his obsessions. Without poverty he would be empty; but poverty occupies him, allures or embarrasses him, depending on whether he is poor or rich; from another point of view, poverty cannot do without him—it needs this theoretician, this adept of the future, especially since poverty itself, that endless meditation on the likelihood of escaping its own present, would hardly endure its dreariness without the obsession of another earth. Can you doubt it? If so, it is because you have not tasted utter indigence. Do so and you will see that the more destitute you are, the more time and energy you will spend in reforming everything, in thinking—in other words, in vain. I have in mind not only institutions, human creations: those of course you will condemn straight off and without appeal; but objects, all objects, however insignificant. Unable to accept them as they are, you will want to impose your laws and your whims upon them, to function at their expense as legislator or as tyrant; you will even want to intervene in the life of elements in order to modify their physiognomy, their structure. Air annoys you: let it be transformed! And stone as well. And the same for the vegetal world, the same for man. Down past the foundations of being, down to the stratum of chaos, descend, install yourself there! When you haven’t a penny in your pocket, you strive, you dream, how extravagantly you labor to possess that All, and as long as the frenzy lasts, you do possess that All, you equal God, though no one realizes it, not even God, not even you. The delirium of the poor is the generator of events, the source of history: a throng of hysterics who want another world, here and now. It is they who inspire utopias, it is for them that utopias are written. But utopia, let us remember, means nowhere.

And where would these cities be which evil never touches, in which labor is blessed and death is never feared?There one is constrained to a felicity of geometric idylls, of adjusted ecstasies, of a thousand disgusting wonders necessarily offered by the spectacle of a perfect world, a fabricated world. In ludicrous detail, Campanella tells us about the Solarians exempt from “gout, rheumatism, catarrh, sciatica, colic, hydropsy, flatus…” Everything abounds in the City of the Sun “because each man is eager to distinguish himself in what he does. The leader who presides over each thing is called: King… Women and men, divided into bands, go about their work without ever infringing the orders of their kings, and without ever appearing fatigued, as we do. They regard their leaders as fathers or as older brothers.” —We shall recognize the same twaddle in other works of the genre, particularly in those of a Cabet, a Fourier or a Morris, all lacking in that touch of rancor so necessary to literary works, and not only those.

To conceive a true utopia, to sketch, with conviction, the structure of an ideal society, requires a certain dose of ingenuousness, even of stupidity, which, being too evident, ultimately exasperates the reader. The only readable utopias are the false ones, the ones which, written in a spirit of entertainment or misanthropy, prefigure or recall Gulliver’s Travels, that Bible of the disabused, quintessence of nonchimerical visions, a utopia without hope. By his sarcasms, Swift undeceived a genre to the point of destroying it.

Is it easier to confect a utopia than an apocalypse? Both have their principles and their stereotypes. The former, whose cliches are closer to our deepest instincts, has given rise to a much more abundant literature than the latter. Not everyone can reckon with a cosmic catastrophe, nor love the language and the style with which it is heralded and proclaimed. But he who acknowledges and applauds such an idea will read, in the Gospels, with all the enthusiasm of vice, the figures and banalities which will prosper on Patmos: “… the stars of heaven shall fall unto the earth, and the moon become as blood …, all the tribes of the earth shall lament … nor shall this generation perish before all these things are come to pass.” This presentiment of the incredible, of a capital event, this crucial expectation can turn into an illusion, which will be the hope of a paradise on earth or elsewhere; or else it can turn into anxiety, and this will be the vision of an ideal Worst, a voluptuously dreaded cataclysm.

“… And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations.” —Conventions of horror, routine procedures. St. John had to go in for them, once he opted for that splendid gibberish, that procession of down falls preferable, all things considered, to the descriptions of cities and islands where you are smothered by an impersonal bliss, where “universal harmony” crushes you in its embrace. The dreams of utopia have for the most part been realized, but in an entirely different spirit from the one in which they had been conceived; what was perfection for utopia is for us a flaw; its chimeras are our disasters. The type of society conceived by utopia in a lyrical tonality seems to us, in operation, intolerable. Judge from the following sample of Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie: “Two thousand five hundred young women (dressmakers) work in a factory, some sitting, some standing, almost all charming. … The rule that each worker produces the same object doubles the rapidity of the manufacture and brings it to perfection as well. Thousands of items of the most elegant headware are created each morning by the hands of these lovely workers. …” —Such lucubrations proceed from mental debility or bad taste. And yet Cabet has, in material terms, seen quite accurately; he is mistaken only with regard to the essential. Utterly uninstructed as to the interval that separates being and producing (we exist, in the full sense of the word, only outside of what we do, only beyond our actions), he could not discern the fatality attached to every form of labor, artisanal, industrial, or otherwise. What is most striking in utopian naratives is the absence of perspicacity, of psychological instinct. Their characters are automatons, fictions or symbols: none is real, none exceeds its puppet status, an idea lost in a universe without reference points. Even the children become unrecogizable. In Fourier’s “societary state,” they are so pure that they are utterly unaware of the temptation to steal, to “pick an apple off a tree.” But a child who does not steal is not a child. What is the use of creating a society of marionettes? I recommend the description of the phalanstery as the most effective vomitive I know.

Placed at the antipodes of a La Rochefoucauld, the inventor of utopias is amoralist who perceives in us only disinterest, craving for sacrifice, self-effacement. Bloodless, perfect, and nil, thunderstruck by Good, stripped of sins and vices, with neither depth nor contour, utterly uninitiated into existence, into the art of embarrassment, of varying one’s shames and torments, such men never suspect the pleasure which our neighbor’s despair provokes in us, the impatience with which we anticipate and follow his down fall. This impatience and this pleasure can, on occasion, proceed from a proper curiosity with nothing diabolical about it. As long as someone rises in the world, we do not know who he is, for—his ascent distancing him from himself—he lacks reality, he does not exist. Similarly, we know ourselves only from the moment when we begin to fail, when any success, on the level of human interests, turns out to be impossible: a perspicuous defeat by which, taking possession of our own being, we stand apart from the universal torpor. The better to grasp your own collapse or another’s, you must pass through evil and, if need be, plunge deep within it: how manage this in those islands and cities from which it is excluded by principle, by raison d’État? Here all shadows are forbidden; only light is admitted. No trace of dualism: utopia is by essence anti-Manichean. Hostile to anomaly, to deformity, to irregularity, it tends to the affirmation of the homogeneous, of the typical, of repetition and orthodoxy. But life is rupture, heresy, derogation from the norms of matter. And man, in relation to life, is heresy to the second degree, victory of the individual, of whim, aberrant apparition, a schismatic animal that society—the totality of sleeping monsters—seeks to recall to the straight and narrow path. Heretic par excellence, the wakened monster, an incarnate solitude, infraction of the universal order, delights in his exception, isolates himself in his onerous privileges, and it is in duration that he pays for what he gains over his “kind”: the more he distinguishes himself from them, the more dangerous and simultaneously the more fragile he will be, for it is at the cost of his longevity that he disturbs the others’ peace and that he creates for himself, there in the heart of the city, an undesirable standing.


Posted: August 2019
Category: Essays