The Influence of Insomnia on the Life and Work of Emil Cioran

Emil Cioran and insomnia

Emil Cioran (1911 – 1995) was a Romanian philosopher born in the Transylvanian village of Rasinari. His early work was written in Romanian, but when he moved to Paris in adulthood, he switched to writing in French. He is an essayist and aphorist, best known for his unrelenting pessimism, lyrical prose, and acerbic wit. His prose is often reminiscent of the other great philosophical aphorists, such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche (the latter being a major influence on Cioran).

We can also think of Cioran as the insomniac philosopher. Cioran long struggled with insomnia, which began in his youth; although, as we shall see, he did not exclusively view it as a curse. He actually found insomnia to be an insightful condition, casting it as something distinctly human, as well as a state that could be highly productive for the philosopher.

I discovered a strange kind of kinship when I first read Cioran’s The Trouble With Being Born (1973), I think partly for his dark, pessimistic, and self-deprecating humour, but also because of his complaints of sleeplessness. I, too, have periodically experienced insomnia, so much so that the inability to sleep has become an all-too-familiar aspect of life, a source of mental disturbance and discomfort. But – at least from Cioran’s point of view – there is potentially something useful about this state of wakefulness in the night.

Insomnia: An Unfortunate Aspect of the Human Condition 

Cioran covers the subject of insomnia in his first book On the Heights of Despair (1934), published when Cioran was just 22 years old. This book consists of short essays; very short essays in fact, as none are longer than a few pages. One such essay is titled Man, the Insomniac Animal, in which he writes:

The importance of insomnia is so colossal that I am tempted to define man as the animal that cannot sleep. Why call him a rational animal when other animals are equally reasonable? But there is not another animal in the entire creation that wants to sleep yet cannot.

In this essay we also find Cioran describing insomnia as one of the most irritating and agonising conditions to live with, which you can imagine it would be for a chronic sufferer like himself (as well as many other sleepless, strung out people out there). Indeed, like many other aspects of the human condition, such as freedom, isolation, boredom, meaninglessness, and awareness of death, insomnia becomes a potent source of suffering in life; however, it is perhaps more separate from these other human experiences in that chronic insomnia often has significant ramifications on one’s physical health, due to either sleep deprivation or the unnatural sleep-wake cycle that the insomniac has to deal with. In his essay, Cioran continues:

Sleep is forgetfulness: life’s drama, its complications and obsessions vanish completely, and every awakening is a new beginning, a new hope. Life thus maintains a pleasant discontinuity, the illusions of permanent regeneration. Insomnia, on the other hand, gives birth to a feeling of irrevocable sadness, despair, and agony. The healthy man – the animal – only dabbles in insomnia: he knows nothing of those who would give a kingdom for an hour of unconscious sleep, those as terrified by the sight of a bed as they would be of a torture rack.

The metaphor at the end there certainly resonates with me. During protracted periods of insomnia, just the thought or image of a bed would conjure up feelings of dread. While a bed should – and usually does – figure in our lives as a small place of ultimate comfort and rest; for the insomniac, it instead transfigures into an instrument of torture. The insomniac knows too well the abject fatigue that comes with insomnia, the expectation and hope of being able to sleep the following night due to such tiredness, and then the frustration of being physically exhausted in bed, but mentally overcharged and alert, troubled with endless chatter and ruminations, as well as – of course – the desperate plea for sleep and the mind’s cruel denial of the wish.

Irony is at the heart of insomnia. The psychologist Daniel Wegner has sought to understand insomnia through the “theory of ironic processes of mental control”. According to this theory, there are certain conditions whereby the desire to control a mental state (e.g. sleep, mood, attention) leads to the opposite effect of what is desired. He states this is what appears to be happening in the case of chronic insomnia. The insomniac’s efforts to get to sleep ironically backfire, as they provide further fuel for insomnia, as it were. When you try to suppress the negative thoughts or anxieties that are keeping you awake and causing you to toss and turn for hours, you always end up self-monitoring the process, asking yourself if it’s working, but then, of course, this internal monitoring continues to keep you awake.

Whatever technique I have tried to employ to sleep (get out of bed, meditate, count sheep, suppress thoughts), there is always an underlying aim of wanting to sleep and a watchfulness over whether I’m getting close to this aim, thus moving me further away from the promised land of unconsciousness. Furthermore, any type of thought keeping me shut off from sleep becomes compounded by sleeplessness itself: along with any anxiety keeping me awake is the added anxiety of that anxiety keeping me awake, disrupting my sleep-wake cycle, depriving me of sleep, and ruining the following day. Nicole Parfait, who has written about Cioran’s insomnia, notes how “insomnia feeds on the fear of insomnia, an evil without remedy”.

Even giving up on the hope of trying to fall asleep and accepting sleeplessness can fail, as it is hard to shake off the ulterior motive that this embrace of insomnia will be effective at helping me fall asleep. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that Cioran’s writings teem with irony – he did, after all, grapple with the ironic condition of insomnia throughout his life. In The Trouble With Being Born, Cioran emphasises the heavy burden of his insomnia:

Three in the morning. I realize this second, then this one, then the next: I draw up the balance sheet for each minute. And why all this? Because I was born. It is a special type of sleeplessness that produces the indictment of birth.

Some readers may view this as hyperbole, and may react this way even more so to the following analogy he makes: “What is that one crucifixion compared to the daily kind any insomniac endures?” Here it’s crucial to point out that Cioran often employed exaggeration in his writings. Opinions may differ as to what effect this exaggeration has: you may think it paints Cioran as overdramatic, humorous, poetic, deserving of sympathy, or all of these qualities together.

Whatever your reaction to Cioran’s hyperbolic expressions, we can still clearly see that insomnia was a prominent and enduring form of suffering for Cioran. In a 1983 interview with Jason Weiss, Cioran explains how chronic insomnia had been “the most terrible, most unsettling, in short the principal experience of my life,” adding that “it requires an extraordinary will not to succumb…to the temptation of suicide”. (Here it’s worth highlighting the strong relationship between insomnia and suicide.) Consciousness became a “great” and “permanent” misfortune for Cioran, whereas for the easy sleepers out there, the state of being awake and conscious is desirable, something people want to prolong as long as possible.

Cioran details the negative physical and psychological effects of insomnia – it made him tense, feverish, violent, quarrelsome, and feel disconnected from others, as an outsider in the world. Insomnia also made everything difficult and magnified all problems: “You will suffer from everything, and to excess: the winds will seem gales; every tough a dagger; smiles slaps; trifles, cataclysms.” This kind of irritability, negativity bias, and out-of-proportion thinking seem typical of depression, which is hardly surprising, given the tendency of insomnia to be both a cause and a consequence of the mood disorder. Moreover, this description of the effects of insomnia may help to explain why Cioran was so prone to the use of hyperbole. Insomnia – at least for Cioran – involves the exaggeration of everything, the turning of the trivial into the unbearable. Thus it is unsurprising that such an exaggerated emotional life would be reflected in the hyperbole that is typical of Cioran’s writing.

Cioran added in his interview with Weiss that he had never met an insomniac who suffered to the same degree as him. Someone who occasionally experiences insomnia would not understand the sense of despair and entrapment felt by the chronic insomniac, especially someone like Cioran, who in his youth went weeks without sleeping at all. However, Cioran later discovered when living in France that prolonged periods of cycling – and the intense physical exertion involved – brought his insomnia to an end. “This providential bicycle saved me,” he said.

On the Value of Insomnia

While Cioran clearly despaired over insomnia and bemoaned the torture it involves, as many insomniacs are justified in doing, he was also open to the potential value of being unable to sleep during those silent hours. The Cioran scholar Gordon Marino said of the insomniac philosopher:

While he cursed his nocturnal suffering and used morphine, among other things, to try and knock himself out, he ultimately understood his long journeys into the sickly morning light as both crushing him and yet shaping his sensibilities.

Cioran’s praises insomnia in his notable work A Short History of Decay (1949):

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?

Insomnia, then, may act as a kind of wellspring for creativity, inspiration, insight, and novel thinking; Cioran, at least, thinks his sleeplessness provided an atmosphere for productive thoughts to arise. When the world is asleep, you can enjoy a unique kind of quietude that non-insomniacs only occasionally experience. And while the experience of insomnia is unequivocally unpleasant, the mind in this state can still nonetheless churn out engaging thoughts and ideas, perhaps arising thanks to the unusual silence of 3 am or due to the way insomnia itself can change your thought processes.

In the interview with Weiss, Cioran says he wasn’t tempted to follow the mystic’s path but he did discover something spiritual about his insomnia. He found that insomnia:

gives you amazingly ecstatic states. You see, when you’re under a great deal of nervous tension, there are moments—which Dostoyevsky speaks about in The Possessed, with Kirilov—where you’re suddenly seized with the feeling of truly being God, the whole universe is centered on you. What is called ecstasy has diverse forms, according to the conceptions one has. I knew these states, which are frequent for epileptics. I was never epileptic, but because of this amazing nervous tension I knew what is called ecstasy. It manifests itself by a sort of sensation of extraordinary light, inside and outside. And it’s at that point that I really understood the mystics.

During his sleepless nights, he had “the impression of a mysterious presence”. Cioran also affirmed that his insomnia allowed him to go deeper with his thinking: “Whether everything I’ve thought was due to insomnia or not, it would have lacked a certain frenzy without it. That’s undeniable. Through insomnia all these things took on another dimension.” At around the age of 20, Cioran “stopped sleeping”, which he remarked was “the grandest tragedy that could occur” – he walked the streets at all hours “like some kind of phantom”. But this phantom existence also – in his eyes – stimulated his creative and philosophical output: “All that I have written much later has been worked out during those nights”. In A Short History of Decay, Cioran portrays ‘Insomnia’ as a personified companion, a kind of muse, which “in a single night grant[ed] more knowledge than days spent in repose”.

Various other philosophers have discussed the phenomenon of insomnia. Not all of them view sleeplessness in such a diametrically opposed way as Cioran does, as a state both devilish and fruitful; but rather see it generally in a more positive light, based on the value of wakefulness and the wastefulness of slumber. Plato and Clement of Alexandria both made this kind of argument. Insomnia may also be a natural bedfellow of the philosopher. For instance, in Totality and Infinity (1961), Emmanuel Levinas said all of philosophy was a call to “infinite responsibility, to an untiring wakefulness, to a total insomnia.” The French philosopher and psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle echoed this opinion in Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy (2003), arguing that “philosophy was born with anxiety, with questioning, with insomnia. It takes upon itself the ills of the world, and thus it cannot sleep.” It is nonetheless understandable that Cioran would bemoan the plight of insomnia more than other philosophers, given the extent to which he suffered from it.

We can glean much more about Cioran’s insomnia and its effect on his thought through a brilliant essay by Willis G. Reiger titled Cioran’s Insomnia, published in 2004 in Modern Language Notes. Reiger asserts that Cioran “presented insomnia as a noble affliction, a disease of hyper-consciousness”, adding: “Insomnia suited his dominant moods: pity, disgust, desolation, horror, nostalgia, and regret. It fit other favorite topics: ennui, solitude, infirmity, and suicide.” Many concerns kept Cioran in a state of wakefulness, such as his recognition of – and obsession with – mortality. Indeed, if you are someone troubled with hyper-consciousness, then it may be difficult to ignore certain disturbing facts of human existence, like the awareness of eventual decease.

A fascinating alternative interpretation here, however, comes from the Norwegian existentialist Peter Wessel Zapffe, who claimed that all people are burdened by an overabundance of consciousness. In his essay The Last Messiah (1933), he proposes that most people can restrict their consciousness through certain techniques like avoidance, distraction, focusing on specific value systems and ideals, and creativity; but unfortunately, it appears that a minority of people, including thinkers like Cioran, are either unable or unwilling to use such methods to repress consciousness, and the result is an anxious mind that cannot switch off, flooded by the most disturbing elements of the human condition.

In his second book, The Book of Delusions (1936), Cioran believed that his nocturnal thoughts had a “mysterious precision and troubling laconicism”. Like Nietzsche, Cioran thought of suffering as immensely valuable, saying that “sickness is a revelation”. This was certainly how he viewed his struggles with insomnia. He took the Nietzschean stance of seeing his insomnia as a testing, strengthening experience, a tribulation that called for endurance and heroism. In Cioran’s third book, Tears and Saints (1937), Reiger states that the insomniac philosopher “exalted insomnia into sanctifying pain. Involuntary sleeplessness gave Cioran the same raw sensitivity that vigilance brought to the saints.” There were only a few things that helped keep the mind vigilant according to Cioran: “coffee, disease, insomnia, or the obsession of death”. As well as increased vigilance, insomnia offers the restless sufferer the experience of wakefulness during the break of dawn. This is one silver lining of the condition. As Cioran writes in Anathemas and Admirations (1986):

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.

Another benefit of insomnia for Cioran was its supposed propensity to encourage self-awareness, which is beneficial, but which we tend to resist:

Insomnia sheds a light on us which we do not desire but to which, unconsciously, we tend. We demand it in spite of ourselves. From it, and at the expense of our health, we seek something else: dangerous, harmful truths, everything that sleep has kept us from glimpsing. Yet our insomnia liberates us from our facility and our fictions only to confront us with a blocked horizon: it illuminates our impasses. It dooms us while it delivers us: an ambiguity inseparable from the experience of the night.

We can see in this discussion how dichotomous Cioran’s relationship was with insomnia. In his early work, he praised the condition as a purifying condition that brought him close to the saints. But as he grew older, he saw how deleterious the effects of insomnia were, deciding to prioritise restorative sleep over painfully long sleepless nights. This juxtaposition of the benefits of insomnia with its pitfalls fits into the more general twofold nature of suffering: something of potentially great value, which at the same time we must do everything in our power to alleviate and prevent. We should, then, perhaps avoid the glorification of insomnia, which is evident in Cioran’s early thought, while also recognising that if we are unable to sleep, we may nonetheless benefit from this experience in some way. Making the most of insomnia is of course no cure for the condition, but it can make it that tiny bit more bearable.


This article originally appeared on the Partially Examined Life blog.

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