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Killing Yourself Too Late -- Rearranging The Psychic Furniture With Nihilist Emil Cioran

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By Barbara Falconer Newhall

How does this thought hit you: "I live only because it is in my power to die whenever I want; without the idea of suicide I would have killed myself a long time ago."

And this one: "It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late."

Those pithy aphorisms are from the pen of Emil Mihai Cioran, a Romanian-born French writer whose somewhat obscure twentieth-century work once got a reexamination by Joseph Bottum in a First Things article.

The article, "Words of Nectar and Cyanide," notes that Cioran was an aphorist par excellence. To wit: "If I had children, I would strangle them immediately."

And, "I long to be free -- desperately free. Free as the stillborn are free."

Bottum, former editor of the conservative magazine First Things, is a braver soul than I. He seems to have emerged unscathed from his time spent with the downward-facing Cioran.

I'm not so tough-minded. I discourage easily. So I'm careful about the writers I allow to spend time in my psyche, rearranging the furniture. It was all I could to do read Bottum's essay through to the end.

Reading Cioran -- reading about Cioran -- reminded me of a conversation I once had in the city room of the Oakland Tribune. It was with a colleague, Brenda Payton, who was writing a political column for the Trib at the time.

When I asked Brenda what she thought of a particular book that had come across my desk, she replied that she hadn't read much by that writer.

"I don't know whether I can entrust myself to her," she said.

Entrust?

Is that what we do when we engage with a book -- or a movie or a TV series, for that matter? Are we entrusting ourselves and our ever shape-shifting psyches to that writer? Or, in the case of a TV show, to that roomful of writers?

I'm taking Brenda's point. I think we do.

My husband and I watched TV's "Breaking Bad" from its depressing beginning to its almost-uplifting end. It painted a sorry picture of the human condition, but I let it into my brain for months on end anyway. The same goes for the evenings I've spent with Lena Dunham and her of sad-sack bunch of twenty-somethings on "Girls." Ditto my recent read, "Out Stealing Horses," Per Petterson's novel about a man abandoned as a boy by his father.

Sometimes the psychic furniture can do with a little rearranging. But in my case, Cioran is not going to be the one to do it. I still haven't made up my mind about "Girls" -- I keep hoping those kids will grow up in time to teach me something. Petterson, on the other hand, I like. He's invited to take a seat at the table.

© 2016 Barbara Falconer Newhall. All rights reserved.


If this post didn't bum you out too much, consider clicking over to "The Trouble With Daffodils." If you need cheering up, try "A Child Is Born -- And So Is A Grandpa."