- Cioran’s Insomnia
A career insomniac, Cioran made insomnia a laboratory, no easy place to work in well. In 1970 he told François Bondy that "I have never been able to write except in the melancholy of insomniac nights." In 1994 he told Michael Jakob that he considered his insomnia to be "the greatest experience" of his life. Cioran described "a tragedy that has lasted many years and which has marked me for the rest of my days. All that I have written, all that I have thought, all that I have worked out, all my divagations find their origin in this tragedy. When I was about twenty I stopped sleeping and I consider that the grandest tragedy that could occur. At all hours I walked the streets like some kind of phantom. All that I have written much later has been worked out during those nights."1
Adam Gopnik reported that Cioran was reputed not to have slept for fifty years. "This claim, the doctors and commonsense agree, was a poetic exaggeration; he just worried too much to get a good night's rest. But his insistence on wearing his pajamas as a hair shirt, on making his insomnia absolute—a kind of symbolic state of mind—was, in a country as fond of absolutes as France, irresistible." Insomnia became a signature for him, a transcendental theme that connected him to other great insomniacs; in the course of his career he named Hitler, Nero, and Mallarmé. "For Mallarmé, who claimed he was doomed to permanent insomnia, sleep was not a 'real need' but a 'favor.' Only a great poet could allow himself the luxury of such an insanity."2
When in 1947 he abandoned Romanian and determined to make his career in French, Cioran ceased political writing. By then he had much to be mum about. His university studies in Nazi Berlin, his term [End Page 994] in the Romanian army, his fondness for the Iron Guard, and his fame as nationalist writer debuting in Bucharest were prudently unremarked. With much hushed up and doubt already his companion, Cioran brought his insomnia to Paris.
Cioran considered his books to be masked autobiographies, but his insomnia is the one of the few personal facts his books explore. In Paris he devoured biographies, memoirs, and volumes of letters, then deduced: "It is a misfortune for a writer to be understood." He reminisced about his paradisaical childhood, wrote freely about his anguish and antipathies, but until late in life, when he gave a series of interviews, he was reticent about the details of his adult life. "What you write gives only an incomplete image of what you are, because the words loom up and come to life only when you are at the highest or lowest point of yourself." He converted this notion into "a golden rule": "to leave an incomplete image of oneself."3
Refraining from writing about love affairs (though he had them), political struggles (when young, he was a sucker for them), and war stories (while Romania died for the Reich he eked out a living in occupied Paris), Cioran treated insomnia as his defining experience and insignia. He lifted insomnia to the level of a love, a passion play, and heroic battlefield. "Insomnia is a form of heroism because it transforms each new day into a combat lost in advance." "Insomnia is truly the moment when one is totally alone in the universe. Totally. . . . During insomniac nights I have truly understood the mystical, ultimate states, because in the depth that is fascinating in the mystic, the depth conceived in ultimate states, there is nothing more than madness. You are in the midst of night, everything has cleared off, but the God who is not arises, and one has the impression of a mysterious presence."4
Cioran earned his place in the literature of insomnia well aware of its precedents. He confided to his Cahiers that Chekhov's "A Dull Story" is one of the best things ever written on the effects of insomnia.5 Cioran adored Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, and identified with their characters: Macbeth (who "does murder sleep"), Hamlet (in whose heart was...