Friday, May 17, 2024

Pain is Other


Buddhism came to Europe and America in the nineteenth century as a series of text, a philological affair, rather than as a set of practices, rituals, prayers, and sacrifices. It came firstly as intellectual history, rather than as history. The intellectual interest in it was charged by the eighteenth century’s rediscovery of idealism – starting with Berkeley and proceeding to Kant’s thing-in-itself, against which all philosophers and physicists have thrown themselves in vain. This, at least, gives us an outline – a semi-fictitious frame – to understand how Buddhist texts were inscribed by European and American thinkers in their own enterprises in the twentieth century. Stephen Spender said that Eliot, at the time of the Wasteland, said that he would have been a Buddhist if not for being stuck, as it were, in his own culture.

Buddhism , or at least its image, in American poetry in the twentieth century is enormously important.

In Europe, Buddhism did not have the same poetic force. It was, however, picked at by philosophers who were at the margins – neither comfortably continental, by which I mean influenced by phenomenology and Marx, nor analytic. Sages.

Cioran was, if anything, a sage. He was a sage of suicide, or rather, of the internal death drive that creates a sort of longing for the end. His journal, which was also a workbook (similar to the operational method of Emerson) is full of cries and whispers and readings. As a Sage, Ciorna was an inveterate gloss-er – it was in picking over the lines and textual bits of others that he could stake a place for his own thought.

I came across this sequence in his journal for 1962:


“What is impermanent is pain ; what is pain is not-itself. What is not-itself is not mine, I am not this, this is not me.» (Samyutta Nikaya)

What is pain is not-itself. It is difficult, it is impossible to be in agreement with Buddhism on this point, this very important point. For us, pain is more it-self  than ever. What a strange religion! It sees pain everywhere and it declares, at the same time, that it is irreal.

I accept pain. I cannot do without it, and I cannot, in the name of pity (like the Buddha) refuse it a metaphysical status. Buddhism assimilates appearance to pain, it even confounds them. In fact, pain is what gives a depth, a reality to appearance.”


I rather agree with Cioran’s response here.

The mention of “pity” brings into focus this objection to the cold metaphysical indifference to pain – to pain as not-itself – because pity does not even get off the ground if pain is, in the end, simply negative, simply the not-self. Here the dialectic applies, for pain as not-itself does not mean not-pain is itself – it means, rather, that all that is pain and all that holds the possibility of pain - all that is sentient - is not. It is the opening wedge of the Great dissolution. Cioran is in the line of twentieth century thinkers – like Unamumo – who insist that the tragic, that seemingly aesthetic category, is at the center of the moral life. I have some sympathy with that, which works against my otherwise happy American pragmatism. Without the tragic, pragmatism becomes, in my view, unhinged. It seeks out – as every philosophical instinct seeks out – an end, an ultimate, and only finds another transaction – which is why pragmatism accords so well with the cash nexus.


Cioran, that old reactionary, is good to read against the grain of pragmatism. Interestingly, it is this which makes me suspicious of the American poetic theme of Buddhism. It is all too much in the American grain.

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