Some Men Just Want to Watch the World Burn

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Some Men Just Want to Watch the World Burn
On the Heights of Despair with Romanian Philosopher, E. M. Cioran

"Some men aren't looking for anything logical.
They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.
Some men just want to watch the world burn." - Alfred, Bruce Wayne's

Alfred is speaking of Batman's arch-nemesis: the maniacal Joker. Joker is the embodiment of pure nihilism. To the Joker, the world has no meaning; life makes no sense. Therefore, the most sane response to an absurd reality is insanity, absurdity, chaos, and destruction.

Joker is unlike most villains in that he is a picture of pure evil. Most villains desire some good (wealth, security, influence, power); they simply use evil means to obtain that good. Joker, on the other hand, seeks no good. He seeks no good because there is no good. And all attempts at good are insane. His only wish is to spread his madness to the world.

Joker's stance is not limited to the pages of comic books, novels, and fantasy movies. Others share his madness, and desire nothing more than to "watch the world burn." One such person is the Romanian philosopher, E. M. Cioran (1911-1995), author of On the Heights of Despair.

Cioran is one disturbed individual, and he wishes to spread his madness. Cioran is a true nihilist. He believes in nothing. To Cioran, all philosophies are equally insignificant, nothing more than mankind's desperate attempts to create meaning in a meaningless world. The only purpose of philosophy is that is "masks our inner torments" (27).

Cioran embraces the desperate situation humanity finds itself in. He writes, "I am... aware of my total insignificance. I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only real existence" (33, emphasis his). He admits, "If I were to be totally sincere, I would say that I do not know why I live and why I do not stop living" (33). The meaninglessness of the world makes it impossible to establish a moral or aesthetic foothold: "I do not know what is right and what is wrong; what is allowed and what is not; I cannot judge and I cannot praise. There are no valid criteria and no consistent principles in the world" (49).

Cioran believes that compassion is for the mediocre. Reflecting on morality is a waste of time, for nothing is better or worse than anything else. An irrational reality makes rational talk meaningless.

Only nothingness endures, and it will swallow us all forever (67). And the irrationality at the core of the universe is infinite, and thus, inescapable:

How can we accomplish anything in the future when we have behind us an eternity in which nothing was accomplished? If the world had had any meaning, it would have been revealed to us by now and we would know it. How can I continue to believe that it will be disclosed in the future when it has not been made manifest yet? But the world has no meaning; irrational at the core, it is, moreover, infinite. (98)

There is no real goal to history, thus progress is never made.

To make matters worse, we delude ourselves by objectifying "death as a reality transcending life" because death is "an inner fatality of life itself. One of the greatest delusions of the average man is to forget that life is death's prisoner" (23). The silence and nothingness of death is ultimate reality. Therefore, "[t]he immanence of death in life is a sign of the final triumph of nothingness over life" (26).

Cioran is trapped in a world without meaning, without hope. Nothing can be commended, nothing condemned. Everything is equally meaningless - equally right and equally wrong. His "joy of madness" is evident in the following quote:

Everything is possible, and yet nothing is. All is permitted, and yet again, nothing. No matter which way we go, it is no better than any other. . . . There is an explanation for everything, and yet there is none.  Everything is both real and unreal, normal and absurd, splendid and insipid. There is nothing worth more than something else, nor any idea better than another. ... All gain is a loss, and all loss is a gain. Why always expect a definite stance, clear ideas, meaningful words? (116)

What's interesting about Cioran is that his philosophy reflects a radical postmodern and pluralistic mindset. What is shocking is that Cioran is consistent in his perspective! If nothing is wrong, then nothing is right. If no belief is better than any other, then no belief really matters in the first place. If the search for truth is simply a way to "mask our inner torments" then everything is a lie, and nothing really matters. The only ultimate reality is death. Nothingness is eternal. Death is infinite. Death is ultimate. Death is reality. Life, on the other hand, is madness. The few vain years we spend upon this earth are nothing more than a desperate attempt to veil the madness through meaningless philosophies.

One may disagree with Cioran's conclusions, but one must respect his consistency. The problem with his system is that "practically, nihilism fails. It can be thought, but not lived."[1]

Some people wrestle with the possibility of hell. If a loving God existed, why would there be a hell? But we must remember that love is not coerced. It cannot be forced. Some people simply want nothing to do with God. Cioran writes, "I hate Jesus for his preachings, his morality, his ideas, and his faith" (96-97).

Perhaps in God's mercy, God gives people exactly what they seek. And perhaps some want nothing more than to watch the world burn!

There are so many ways to achieve the sensation of immateriality that it would be difficult, if not futile, to make a classification. Nevertheless, I think that the bath of fire is one of the best. The bath of fire: your being ablaze, all flashes and sparks, consumed by flames as in Hell. The bath of fire purifies so radically that it does away with existence. Its heat waves and scorching flames burn the kernel of life, smothering its vital elan, turning its aggressiveness into aspiration. To live in a bath of fire, transfigured by its rich glow--such is the state of immaterial purity where one is nothing but a dancing flame. Freed from the laws of gravity, life becomes illusion or dream. But this is not all: at the end, a most curious and paradoxical sensation occurs, the feeling of dreamy unreality gives way to the sensation of becoming ash. The bath of fire invariable ends thus: when the inner conflagration has scorched the ground of your being, when all is ashes, what else is there left to experience? There is both mad delight and infinite irony in the thought of my ashes scattered to the four winds, sown frenetically in space, an eternal reproach to the world. (45)

[1] Kim Fabricus, Propositions on Christian Theology (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 2008), 47.

Quotes excerpted from On the Heights of Despair by E. M. Cioran, translated by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston

© Richard J. Vincent, 2008

1 Comment

Still, Cioran has accepted the challenge of being, rather than non-being. Suicide is not a solution, the temptation to exist prevails.

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