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Correspondence with Michael J. McNeal

August 17, 2012

[Here’s a fairly typical exchange with my good friend Michael J. McNeal, educator, political scientist, Nietzsche scholar and stimulator of brains. He’s a retiring fellow in some ways, but if you can come across him you’ll be well rewarded!]

(From Facebook 11.08.2012)

Michael J. McNeal posts:

From ‘On the Heights of Despair’
The world and I

I am: therefore the world is meaningless. What meaning is there in the tragic suffering of a man for whom everything is ultimately nothing and whose only law in this world is agony? If the world tolerates somebody like me, this can only mean that the blots on the so-called sun of life are so large that in time they will obscure its light. Life’s beastliness trampled me under foot and oppressed me, clipped my wings in full flight and stole all my rightful joys. 1 the enthusiastic zeal and mad passion I put into becoming a brilliant individual, the demonic charm I adopted to gain an aura in the future, and the energy I spent on an organic, glamorous, inner rebirth, all proved weaker than the beastly brutality and irrationality of this world, which poured into me all its reserves of negativity and poison. Life is impossible at high temperatures. That’s why I have reached the conclusion that anguished people, whose inner dynamism is so intense that it reaches paroxysm, and who cannot accept normal temperatures, are doomed to fall. The destruction of those who live unusual lives is an aspect of life’s demonism, but it is also an aspect of its insufficiency, which explains why life is the privilege of mediocre people. Only mediocrities live at life’s normal temperature; the others are consumed at temperatures at which life cannot endure, at which they can barely breathe, already one foot beyond life. I cannot contribute anything to this world because I only have one method: agony. You complain that people are mean, vengeful, ungrateful, and hypocritical? I propose the agony method to rid you of all these imperfections. Apply it to every generation and its effects will soon be evident. Maybe in this way I too could become useful to mankind! Bring every man to the agony of life’s last moments by whip, fire, or injections, and through terrible torture he will undergo the great purification afforded by a vision of death. Then free him and let him run in a fright until he falls exhausted. I warrant you that the effect is incomparably greater than any obtained through normal means. If I could, I would drive the entire world to agony to achieve a radical purification of life; I would set a fire burning insidiously at the roots of life, not to destroy them but to give them a new and different sap, a new heat. The fire I would set to the world would not bring ruin but cosmic transfiguration. In this way life would adjust to higher temperatures and would cease to be an environment propitious to mediocrity. And maybe in this dream, death too would cease to be immanent in life.
(These lines written today, April 8, 1933, when I turn twenty-two. It is strange to think that I am already a specialist in the question of death.)

Emil Cioran’s heights of despair |

(Reply)Thanks also for the TLS article, which puts this loon into context. Despite the attractions of “bleak nihilism” I believe it leads to fascism. Don’t believe the “crucible of suffering” does improve people, though being tested might. People pass the test of suffering a lot, but suffering is also a con, used to keep the punters in line, as Floozie Foster  might say.

The unbearable lightness etc is an issue, but we must choose what gives life meaning, and what better thing to choose than to love and work to support the people and ideals we cherish (maybe a few things too but go easy, huh?) ? That’s what I think people should put their intellectual energy into rather than by revelling in the ghastliness. Too sentimental?

Good as Cioran’s philosophical insights may be, this sort of writing lacks things I value in literature (not that I’ve read much lately!). I like stories and beautiful descriptive language!

Life is demonic, and it’s good not to get too sentimental about that! So thanks for the update Michael, a good brain is our best defence!

Intrigued by Cioran’s success (and Beckett’s) following writing in French, and want to emulate it! Will get poems translated and made into prints!

(and) Of course the danger of the sentimental view given above is that one falls into the trap of expecting, nay, demanding as much and more of the “fulfilling, supportive love” as one is in theory offering. Let me know if I ever do that, Michael, but make sure you have the price of a drink first, for mercy’s sake!

(and) Maybe it’s nostalgia, but can’t help thinking people were more comfortable with notions of loving back in the day. Now people are too busy, cool, philosophical and post modern to do anything but joke and get embarrassed. Ask our governments to love us! They claim to, don’t they? They should!

Michael J. McNeal Cioran’s passage above is provocative, but it is completely derivative of Nietzsche’s thinking some fifty years earlier, without providing any kind of “program” (as it were) for revaluing the anti-natural values that exacerbate our ineliminable suffering. We must affirm our suffering (life) to give it edifying meaning(s).

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