ars libertatis

8 April 1911 – 20 June 1995

To be lyrical means you cannot stay closed up inside yourself. The need to externalize is the more intense, the more the lyricism is interiorized, profound, and concentrated. Why is the suffering or loving man lyrical? Because such states, although different in nature and orientation, spring up from the deepest and most intimate part of our being, from the substantial center of subjectivity, as from a radiation zone. One becomes lyrical when one’s life beats to an essential rhythm and the experience is so intense that it synthesizes the entire meaning of one’s personality.

On the Heights of Despair (1934), On Being Lyrical

On the heights of despair, the passion for the absurd is the only thing that can still throw a demonic light on chaos. When all the current reasons—moral, esthetic, religious, social, and so on—no longer guide one’s life, how can one sustain life without succumbing to nothingness? Only by a connection with the absurd, by love of absolute uselessness, loving something which does not have substance but which simulates an illusion of life.

On the Heights of Despair (1934), The Passion for the Absurd

Why this curse on some of us who can never feel at ease anywhere, neither in the sun nor out of it, neither with men nor without them? Ignorant of good humor, an amazing achievement! Those who have no access to irresponsibility are the most wretched. To possess a high degree of consciousness, to be always aware of yourself in relation to the world, to live in the permanent tension of knowledge, means to be lost for life. Knowledge is the plague of life, and consciousness, an open wound in its heart.

On the Heights of Despair (1934), Total Dissatisfaction

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. It surprises me that some people still concern themselves with a theory of knowledge. To tell the truth, I couldn’t care less about the relativity of knowledge, simply because the world does not deserve to be known.

On the Heights of Despair (1934), I Do Not Know

Even today nobody can tell what is right or what is wrong. It will be the same in the future. The relativity of such expressions means little; not to be able to dispense with their use is more significant. I don’t know what is right and what is wrong, and yet I divide actions into good and bad. If anyone asked me why I do so, I couldn’t give an answer. I use moral criteria instinctively; later, when I reconsider, I do not find any justifications for having done so.

On the Heights of Despair (1934), Eternity and Morality

Is it possible that I carry within me all that I’ve seen in my life? It is frightening to think that all those landscapes, books, horrors, and sublimities could be amassed in one single brain. I feel as if they have been transferred into me as realities and that they weigh heavily upon me. Sometimes I am overcome and I would prefer to forget all. Interiorization leads to inner collapse, because the world penetrates you and crushes you with its overbearing weight. Is it surprising, then, that some would have recourse to anything—from vulgarity to art—in order to forget?

On the Heights of Despair (1934), The Satanic Principle of Suffering

Chronic fatigue predisposes to a love of silence, for in it words lose their meaning and strike the ear with the hollow sonority of mechanical hammers; concepts weaken, expressions lose their force, the word grows barren as the wilderness. The ebb and flow of the outside is like a distant monotonous murmur unable to stir interest or curiosity. Then you will think it useless to express an opinion, to take a stand, to make an impression; the noises you have renounced increase the anxiety of your soul. 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.

On the Heights of Despair (1934), Facing Silence

A little knowledge is delightful; a lot, disgusting. The more you know, the less you want to know. He who has not suffered from knowledge has never known anything.

On the Heights of Despair (1934), The Double and His Art

But the enthusiast of separations, seeking paths unhaunted by the hordes, withdraws to the extreme margin and follows the rim of the circle, which he cannot cross so long as he is subject to the body; yet Consciousness soars farther, quite pure in an ennui without beings or objects. No longer suffering, superior to the excuses which invite dying, Consciousness forgets the man who supports it. More unreal than a star glimpsed in some hallucination, it suggests the condition of a sidereal pirouette—while on life’s circumference the soul promenades, meeting only itself over and over again, itself and its impotence to answer the call of the Void.

A Short History of Decay (1949), 1 Directions for Decomposition, Promenade around the Circumference

All truths are against us. But we go on living, because we accept them in themselves, because we refuse to draw the consequences. Where is the man who has translated—in his behavior—a single conclusion of the lessons of astronomy, of biology, and who has decided never to leave his bed again out of rebellion or humility in the face of the sidereal distances or the natural phenomena? Has pride ever been conquered by the evidence of our unreality? And who was ever bold enough to do nothing because every action is senseless in infinity? The sciences prove our nothingness. But who has grasped their ultimate teaching? Who has become a hero of total sloth? No one folds his arms: we are busier than the ants and the bees. Yet if an ant, if a bee—by the miracle of an idea or by some temptation of singularity— were to isolate herself in the anthill or the hive, if she contemplated from outside the spectacle of her labors, would she still persist in her pains?

A Short History of Decay (1949), 1 Directions for Decomposition, Militant Mourning

At first, we think we advance toward the light; then, wearied by an aimless march, we lose our way: the earth, less and less secure, no longer supports us; it opens under our feet. Vainly we should try to follow a path toward a sunlit goal; the shadows mount within and below us. No gleam to slow our descent: the abyss summons us, and we lend an ear. Above still remains all we wanted to be, all that has not had the power to raise us higher. And we, once in love with the peaks, then disappointed by them, we end by fondling our fall, we hurry to fulfill it, instruments of a strange execution, fascinated by the illusion of reaching the limits of the darkness, the frontiers of our nocturnal fate. Fear of the void transformed into a kind of voluptuous joy, what luck to gainsay the sun! Infinity in reverse, god that begins beneath our heels, ecstasy before the crevices of being, and thirst for a black halo, the Void is an inverted dream in which we are engulfed.

A Short History of Decay (1949), 1 Directions for Decomposition, Non-Resistance to Night

If we could conserve the energy we lavish in that series of dreams we nightly leave behind us, the mind’s depth and subtlety would reach unimaginable proportions. The scaffolding of a nightmare requires a nervous expenditure more exhausting than the best articulated theoretical construction. How, after waking, begin again the task of aligning ideas when, in our unconscious, we were mixed up with grotesque and marvelous spectacles, we were sailing among the spheres without the shackles of anti-poetic Causality? For hours we were like drunken gods—and suddenly, our open eyes erasing night’s infinity, we must resume, in day’s mediocrity, the enterprise of insipid problems, without any of the night’s hallucinations to help us.

A Short History of Decay (1949), 1 Directions for Decomposition, Overworked by Dreams

We are in a position to penetrate someone’s mistake, to show him the inanity of his plans and intentions; 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 excellence; and his dogmas are all the deeper when he does not formulate them, when he is unaware of them, and when he follows them.

A Short History of Decay (1949), 1 Directions for Decomposition, Unconscious Dogmas

So long as man is protected by madness, he functions and flourishes; but when he frees himself from the fruitful tyranny of fixed ideas, he is lost, ruined. He begins to accept everything, to wrap not only minor abuses in his tolerance, but crimes and monstrosities, vices and aberrations: everything is worth the same to him. His indulgence, self-destroying as it is, extends to all the guilty, to the victims and the executioners; he takes all sides, because he espouses all opinions; gelatinous, contaminated by infinity, he has lost his “character,” lacking any point of reference, any obsession.

A Short History of Decay (1949), 1 Directions for Decomposition, The Flower of Fixed Ideas

The aging process in the verbal universe follows a much more accelerated rhythm than in the material one. Words, too often repeated, weaken and die, whereas monotony constitutes the very law of matter. The mind should have an infinite dictionary, but its means are limited to a few expressions trivialized by usage. Hence the new, requiring strange combinations, forces words into unexpected functions: originality is reduced to the torment of the adjective and to the suggestive impropriety of metaphor. Put words in their place: that is the everyday graveyard of Speech. What is consecrated in a language constitutes its death: an anticipated word is a defunct one; only its artificial use imbues it with a new vigor, until it is commonly adopted, worn, corrupted. . . .

A Short History of Decay (1949), 1 Directions for Decomposition, The Obsolete Universe

I breathe out of prejudice. And I contemplate the spasm of ideas, while the Void smiles at itself. . . . No more sweat in space, no more life; the least vulgarity will make it reappear: a second’s waiting will suffice.

A Short History of Decay (1949), 2 The Second-Hand Thinker, The Automaton

The mistake of those who apprehend decadence is to try to oppose it whereas it must be encouraged: by developing it exhausts itself and permits the advent of other forms. The true harbinger is not the man who offers a system when no one wants it, but rather the man who precipitates Chaos, its agent and incense-bearer. It is vulgar to trumpet dogmas in extenuated ages when any dream of the future seems a dream or an imposture. To make for the end of time with a flower in one’s buttonhole—the sole comportment worthy of us in time’s passage.

A Short History of Decay (1949), 3 Faces of Decadence

Endlessly harping on the “why” and the “how”; tracing the Cause, and all causes, on the slightest pretext—denotes a disorder of the functions and faculties which ends in a “metaphysical delirium” —senility of the abyss, downfall of anguish, ultimate ugliness of the mysteries. .. .

A Short History of Decay (1949), 4 Sanctity and the Grimaces of the Absolute, The Metaphysical Animal

We are not more conscious than the Greco-Roman world, the Renaissance, or the eighteenth century; each period is perfect in itself—and perishable. There are privileged moments when consciousness is exasperated, but there was never an eclipse of lucidity such that man was incapable of confronting the essential problems, history being no more than a perpetual crisis, even a breakdown of naïvete. Negative states—precisely those which exasperate consciousness—are variously distributed; nonetheless they are present in every historical period; balanced and “happy,” they know Ennui—the natural name for happiness; unbalanced and tumultuous, they suffer Despair and the religious crises which derive from it.

A Short History of Decay (1949), 5 The Decor of Knowledge

We do not find more rigor in philosophy than in poetry, nor in the mind than in the heart; rigor exists only so long as we identify ourself with the principle or thing which we confront or endure; from outside, everything is arbitrary: reasons and sentiments. What we call truth is an error insufficiently experienced, not yet drained, but which will soon age, a new error, and which waits to compromise its novelty. Knowledge blooms and withers along with our feelings. And if we are in a position to scrutinize all truths, it is because we have been exhausted together—and because there is no more sap in us than in them. History is inconceivable outside of what disappoints.

A Short History of Decay (1949), 5 The Decor of Knowledge

True knowledge comes down to vigils in the darkness: the sum of our insomnias alone distinguishes us from the animals and from our kind. What rich or strange idea was ever the work of a sleeper? Is your sleep sound? Are your dreams sweet? You swell the anonymous crowd. Daylight is hostile to thoughts, the sun blocks them out; they flourish only in the middle of the night. . . .

A Short History of Decay (1949), 5 The Decor of Knowledge

It is no less unreasonable to grant more interest to the arguments around democracy and its forms than to those which took place, in the Middle Ages, around nominalism and realism: each period is intoxicated by an absolute, minor and tiresome, but in appearance unique; we cannot avoid being contemporaries of a faith, of a system, of an ideology, cannot avoid being, in short, of our time.

A Short History of Decay (1949), 5 The Decor of Knowledge

Values do not accumulate: a generation contributes something new only by trampling on what was unique in the preceding generation. This is even more the case in the succession of centuries: the Renaissance could not “save” the depth, the phantoms, the genre of savagery of the Middle Ages; the Enlightenment in its turn preserved only the sense of the universal from the Renaissance, without the pathos which marked its physiognomy. The modern illusion has plunged man into the swoons of becoming: he has lost his footing in eternity, his “substance.”

A Short History of Decay (1949), 6 Abdications, We Troglodytes

Every step forward is followed by a step back: this is the unfruitful oscillation of history—a stationary . . . becoming. That man should have let himself be duped by the mirage of Progress is what renders his claims to subtlety absurd. Progress? Perhaps we can find it in hygiene. . . . But anywhere else? In scientific discoveries? After all, no more than deadly glories. . . .

A Short History of Decay (1949), 6 Abdications, We Troglodytes

Dislocated monads, here we are at the end of our prudent mopes, our well-planned anomalies: more than one sign heralds the hegemony of delirium.

All Gall Is Divided (1953), Atrophy of Utterance

No salvation, save in the imitation of silence. But our loquacity is prenatal. A race of rhetoricians, of verbose spermatozoons, we are chemically linked to the Word.

All Gall Is Divided (1953), Atrophy of Utterance

In this “great dormitory,” as one Taoist text calls the universe, nightmare is the sole mode of lucidity.

All Gall Is Divided (1953), Atrophy of Utterance

In all the edifice of thought, I have found no category on which to rest my head. Whereas Chaos — there’s a pillow!

All Gall Is Divided (1953), The Swindler of the Abyss

A little more fervor in my nihilism and I might — gainsaying everything — shake off my doubts and triumph over them. But I have only the taste of negation, not its grace.

All Gall Is Divided (1953), The Swindler of the Abyss

Only optimists commit suicide, the optimists who can no longer be … optimists. The others, having no reason to live, why should they have any to die?

All Gall Is Divided (1953), The Circus of Solitude

Those days when, getting out of bed, my ears filled with a funeral march, I would hum all day long until, by evening, it vanished, quite spent, into an anthem

All Gall Is Divided (1953), Religion

We always love … despite; and that “despite” covers an infinity.

All Gall Is Divided (1953), Love’s Vitality

Had I yielded to music’s lures and flatteries, to all the worlds it has created and destroyed within me, I should long since, out of pride, have lost my reason.

All Gall Is Divided (1953), On Music

This century carries me back to the dawn of time, to the last days of Chaos. I hear the groans of matter; the calls of the Inanimate echo through space; my bones sink into the prehistoric, while my blood flows in the veins of the first reptiles.

All Gall Is Divided (1953), Vertigo of History

If you don’t see death en rose, you are suffering from color blindness of the heart.

All Gall Is Divided (1953), Where the Void Begins

My purpose was to put you on guard against the Serious, against that sin which nothing redeems. In exchange, I wanted to offer you … futility. Now—why conceal it?— futility is the most difficult thing in the world, I mean a futility that is conscious, acquired, deliberate. In my presumption, I hoped to achieve it by the practice of skepticism. Yet skepticism adapts itself to our character, follows our defects and our passions, even our follies; skepticism personalizes itself. (There are as many skepticisms as there are temperaments.) Doubt waxes by all that weakens or opposes it; it is a sickness within another sickness, an obsession within obsession. If you pray, it rises to the level of your prayer; it oversees your delirium, even as it imitates it; in the middle of your vertigo, you will doubt—vertiginously.

The Temptation to Exist (1956), Some Blind Alleys: A Letter

Freedom is the right to difference; being plurality, it postulates the dispersion of the absolute, its resolution into a dust of truths, equally justified and provisional.

The New Gods (1969), The New Gods

I have not lived in the possible, but in the inconceivable. My memory accumulates prostrate horizons.

The New Gods (1969), Encounters With Suicide

The horrors that glut the universe constitute an integral part of its substance; without them, the universe would physically cease to exist.

The New Gods (1969), Encounters With Suicide

Facing a landscape annihilated by the light, to remain serene supposes a temper I do not have. The sun is my purveyor of black thoughts; and summer the season when I have always reconsidered my relations with this world and with myself, to the greatest prejudice of both.

The New Gods (1969), Encounters With Suicide

Let us abide by the concrete and the void, let us proscribe whatever is located between the two: “culture,” “civilization,” “progress.” Let us brood over the best formula ever devised here on earth: manual labor in a monastery. . . . There is no truth, except in physical expenditure and in contemplation; the rest is accidental, useless, unhealthy. Health consists in exercise and in vacuity, in muscles and meditation; in no case in thought. To meditate is to be absorbed into an idea and to be lost there, whereas to think is to leap from one idea to the next, to delight in quantity, to accumulate trifles, to pursue concept after concept, goal after goal.

The New Gods (1969), The Undelivered

Stretching out, I close my eyes. Suddenly an abyss yawns, like a well that, in search of water, perforates the ground with a dizzying speed. Swept into this frenzy, into this void endlessly begetting itself, I identify myself with the generating principle of the abyss and—unhoped—for happiness—I thereby find an occupation and even a mission.

The New Gods (1969), Strangled Thoughts

The desolation expressed by a gorilla’s eyes. A funereal mammal. I am descended from that gaze.

The New Gods (1969), Strangled Thoughts

The earth is apparently five billion years old—life, two or three. These figures contain every consolation we could hope for. We should remember them in the moments when we take ourselves seriously, when we dare suffer.

The New Gods (1969), Strangled Thoughts

Each being is a broken hymn.

The New Gods (1969), Strangled Thoughts

What we want is not freedom but its appearances. It is for these simulacra that man has always striven. And since freedom, as has been said, is no more than a sensation, what difference is there between being free and believing ourselves free?

The New Gods (1969), Strangled Thoughts

Our repressed prayers explode in sarcasms.

The New Gods (1969), Strangled Thoughts

My preferences: the age of the Cave Man, the century of the Enlightenment. But I do not forget that the caves opened onto history, and the salons onto the guillotine.

The New Gods (1969), Strangled Thoughts

All these poems where it is merely the Poem that is in question—a whole poetry with no other substance than itself! What would we say of a prayer whose object was religion?

The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 2

As art sinks into paralysis, artists multiply. This anomaly ceases to be one if we realize that art, on its way to exhaustion, has become both impossible and easy.

The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 3

It has been said that a metaphor “must be able to be drawn.” Whatever is original and lasting in literature for at lost a century contradicts this remark. For if anything has outlived its usefulness it is “coherent” metaphor, one with explicit contours. It is against such metaphor that poetry has unceasingly rebelled, to the point where a dead poetry is a poetry afflicted with coherence.

The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 6

Not the slightest trace of reality anywhere—except in my sensations of unreality.

The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 7
Knowledge is not possible, and even if it were, would solve nothing. Such is the doubter’s position. What does he want, then—what is he looking for? Neither he nor anyone will ever know. Skepticism is the rapture of impasse.
The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 7
Joy is a light which devours itself, inexhaustibly; it is the sun early on.
The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 7
Montaigne, a sage, has had no posterity. Rousseau, an hysteric, still stirs nations. I like only the thinkers who have inspired no tribune of the people.
The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 8
Modern man has lost the sense of fate and thereby the savor of lamentation. In the theater we should reinstate the chorus at once, and at funerals, the mourners….
The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 9

Poetry excludes calculation and premeditation: it is incompletion, foreboding, abyss. Neither a singsong geometry, nor a succession of bloodless adjectives. We are too deeply wounded and too despondent, too weary and too barbarous in our weariness, to appreciate, yet, the craft.

The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 10

To have foundered somewhere between the epigram and the sigh!

The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 10

Walking in a forest between two hedges of ferns transfigured by autumn—that is a triumph. What are ovations and applause beside it?

The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 10

Philosophy is taught only in the agora, in a garden, or at home. The lecture chair is the grave of philosophy, the death of any living thought, the dais is the mind in mourning.

The Trouble With Being Born (1973), 11

No new heaven, no new earth, and no new angel to open the “pit of the abyss.” Moreover do we not have the key to it ourselves? The abyss is in ourselves and outside of ourselves, it is yesterday’s presentiment, today’s question, tomorrow’s certainty.

Drawn and Quartered (1979), I, Urgency of the Worst

Illusion begets and sustains the world; we do not destroy one without destroying the other. Which is what I do every day. An apparently ineffectual operation, since I must begin all over again the next day.

Drawn and Quartered (1979), II, Stabs at Bewilderment, I

Time is corroded from within, exactly like an organism, like everything that is stricken with life. To say Time is to say lesion, and what a lesion!

Drawn and Quartered (1979), II, Stabs at Bewilderment, I

I want to proclaim a truth that would forever exile me from among the living. I know only the conditions but not the words that would allow me to formulate it.

Drawn and Quartered (1979), II, Stabs at Bewilderment, II

If the skeptic admits that truth exists, he allows the innocent the illusion of believing they will someday possess it. As for me, he declares, I abide by appearances, I note what they are and adhere to them only to the degree that, as a living being, I cannot do otherwise. I act like other people, I perform the same deeds they do, but I identify myself with neither my words nor my actions, I bow to customs and laws, I pretend to share the convictions, i.e., the prejudices, of my fellow citizens, while knowing that in the last analysis I am quite as unreal as they.

What then is the skeptic? —A ghost: a conformist ghost.

Drawn and Quartered (1979), II, Stabs at Bewilderment, III

To define nothing is among the skeptic’s obligations. But what can we oppose to the swagger that follows the merest definition we happen to have found? To define is one of the most inveterate of our madnesses, and it must have been born with the first word.

Drawn and Quartered (1979), II, Stabs at Bewilderment, IV

Solitude: so fulfilling that the merest rendezvous is a crucifixion.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 1, On the Verge of Existence

The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live — moreover, the only one.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 3, Fractures

Glum sky: my mind masquerading as the firmament.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 5, The Lure of Disillusion

The light of dawn is the true, primordial light. Each time I observe it, I bless my sleepless nights, which afford me an occasion to witness the spectacle of the Beginning. Yeats calls it “sensuous” — a fine discovery, and anything but obvious.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 5, The Lure of Disillusion

A flame traverses the blood. To go over to the other side, circumventing death.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 5, The Lure of Disillusion

For some — indeed, for the majority — music is stimulating and consoling. For others it is a longed-for dissolving agent, an unhoped-for means of losing themselves, of melting into what may be the best of themselves.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 5, The Lure of Disillusion

I should like to forget everything and waken to a light before time.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 7, Meeting the Moments

This morning I thought, hence lost my bearings, for a good quarter of an hour.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 7, Meeting the Moments

Though you abandon all religious or political faith, you will preserve the tenacity and the intolerance that impelled you to adopt it. You will still be in a rage, but your rage will be directed against the abandoned belief; fanaticism, linked to your very essence, will persist there independent of the convictions you can defend or reject. The basis, your basis, remains the same, and it is not by changing opinions that you will manage to modify it.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 7, Meeting the Moments

Counterirritant to desolation: close your eyes for a long while in order to forget light and all that it reveals.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 9, Exasperations

What I know wreaks havoc upon what I want.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 11, That Fatal Perspicacity

When you waken with a start and long to get back to sleep, you must dismiss every impulse of thought, any shadow of an idea. For it is the formulated idea, the distinct idea, that is sleep’s worst enemy.

Anathemas and Admirations (1986), 11, That Fatal Perspicacity