The Active Life

‘Having a horror of any action, he keeps telling himself: ‘Movement, what folly!’ It is not so much events which vex him as the notion of participating in them; and he bestirs himself only in order to turn away from them. His sneers have devastated life before he has exhausted its juice. He is a crossroads Ecclesiast who finds in the universal meaninglessness an excuse for his defeats… Bearing the image of what he might have been as a stigma and a halo, he blushes and flatters himself on the excellence of his sterility, forever alien to naive seductions, the one free man among the helots of time.He extracts his liberty from the enormity of his lack of accomplishments; he is an infinite and pitiable God whom no creation limits, no creature worships, and whom no one spares. The scorn he has poured out on others is returned by them. He expiates only the actions he has not performed, though their number exceeds the calculations of his wounded pride. But at the end, as a kind of consolation, and at the close of a life without honors, he wears his uselessness like a crown.’

Emil Cioran, A Short History of Decay, translated by Richard Howard.

‘The active life has always struck me as the least comfortable of suicides. To act, in my view, is a cruel and harsh sentence passed on the unjustly condemned dream. To exert influence on the outside world, to change things, to overcome obstacles, to influence people – all of this seems more nebulous to me than the substance of my daydreams. Ever since I was a child, the intrinsic futility of all forms of action has been a cherished touchstone for my detachment from everything, including me. To act is to react against oneself. To exert influence is to leave home.

Abstaining entirely from action and taking no interest in Things, I’m able to see the outside world with perfect objectivity. Since nothing interests me or makes me think it should be changed, I don’t change it.

Whenever my ambition, influenced by dreams, raised above the everyday level of my life, so that for a moment I seemed to soar, like a child on a swing, I always – like the child – had to come down to the public garden and face my defeat, with no flags to wave in battle and no sword I was strong enough to unsheathe.’

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.

‘How many lazy men’s truths have been admitted in the name of the imagination! How often has the term imagination been used to prettify the unhealthy tendency of the soul to soar off in a boundless quest after truth, leaving the body where it always was! How often have men escaped from the pains of their own bodies with the aid of that sentimental aspect of the imagination that feels the ills of others’ flesh as its own!

Yet my dreams became, at some stage, my muscles. The muscles that I had made, that existed, might give scope for the imagination of others, but no longer admitted of being gnawed away by my own imagination.’

Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel.


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