“The man who unmasks his fictions renounces his own resources and, in a sense, himself. Consequently, he will accept other fictions which will deny him, since they will not have cropped up from his own depths.”
By Maria Popova
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster,” James Baldwin wrote in a staggeringly prescient piece from 1953. And yet shutting our eyes is how we humans have coped, again and again, with our own discomfort and helplessness in the face of inconvenient realities — indeed, it could be said that our existential eyelids evolved precisely for this survivalist function, maladaptive and supremely adaptive at the same time. Virginia Woolf articulated the intoxicating chill of this truth: “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades.”
Our illusions are self-cast enchantments that sever our contact with truth by paralyzing what Bertrand Russell called “the will to doubt” — the vital moral faculty that protects us from manipulation and from the credulity Russell considered our “intellectual original sin.” It is a vicious cycle of delusion — one which W.H. Auden described in his incisive meditation on enchantment: “We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny… The state of enchantment is one of certainty. When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.”
To break the spell of self-deception, then, is one of the greatest moral triumphs a human being — or a society, or a civilization — can claim.
That is what the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran (April 8, 1911–June 20, 1995) — whom Susan Sontag celebrated as one of the most lucid, powerful, and nuanced thinkers of the twentieth century, a writer concerned with “consciousness tuned to the highest pitch of refinement” — explores in a passage from his arrestingly titled and arrestingly argued 1956 book The Temptation to Exist (public library).
Echoing Woolf’s insight into the necessity and convenience of illusions — even harmful illusions — Cioran writes:
The destruction of idols involves that of prejudices. Now, prejudices — organic fictions of a civilization — assure its duration, preserve its physiognomy. It must respect them: if not all of them, at least those which are its own and which, in the past, had the importance of a superstition, a rite. If a civilization entertains them as pure conventions, it will increasingly release itself from them without being able to replace them by its own means. And what if it has worshipped caprice, freedom, the individual? A high-class conformism, no more. Once it ceases to “conform,” caprice, freedom, and the individual will become a dead letter.
It is hard to miss the parallels between the civilizational and the social, the political and the personal — we are as susceptible, or perhaps even more susceptible, to such distortions of reality in our private lives. Too often, we frame our emotional motives as moral motives, inflicting our illusions upon others with an air of self-righteousness — the most noxious of self-delusion’s fumes. These tendencies creep up to every level of society as our individual decisions coalesce into collective actions, which are then codified into the stories, policies, and selective memories of events we call history. Cioran writes:
A minimum of unconsciousness is necessary if one wants to stay inside history. To act is one thing; to know one is acting is another. When lucidity invests the action, insinuates itself into it, action is undone and, with it, prejudice, whose function consists, precisely, in subordinating, in enslaving consciousness to action. The man* who unmasks his fictions renounces his own resources and, in a sense, himself. Consequently, he will accept other fictions which will deny him, since they will not have cropped up from his own depths. No man concerned with his equilibrium may exceed a certain degree of lucidity and analysis. How much more this applies to a civilization, which vacillates as soon as it exposes the errors which permitted its growth and its luster, as soon as it calls into question its own truths!
Around the time Baldwin was exhorting his compatriots to wake up and own up to their own monstrosities and ugly truths, Cioran bellows prophetically from the poorest reaches of Eastern Europe, just north of where I was born, in a country centuries the United States’ senior:
America stands before the world as an impetuous void, a fatality without substance. Nothing prepared her for hegemony; yet she tends toward it, not without a certain hesitation. Unlike the other nations which have had to pass through a series of humiliations and defeats, she has known till now only the sterility of an uninterrupted good fortune. If, in the future, everything should continue to go as well, her appearance on the scene will have been an accident without influence. Those who preside over her destiny, those who take her interests to heart, should prepare for bad times; in order to cease being a superficial monster, she requires an ordeal of major scope. Having lived, hitherto, outside hell, she is preparing to descend into it. If she seeks a destiny for herself, she will find it only on the ruins of all that was her raison d’etre.
The Temptation to Exist is a densely sobering read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides on truth and doubt, Emerson on individual integrity and resisting the tyranny of the masses, Bertrand Russell on freedom of thought and our best defense against propaganda, and the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman on why doubt is the wellspring of morality.