How did your severe insomnia affect this attitude at the time?
It was really the profound cause of my break with philosophy. I realized that in moments of great despair philosophy is no help at all, that it holds absolutely no answers. And so I turned to poetry and literature, where I found no answers either, but states that were analogous to my own. I can say that the white nights, the sleepless nights, brought about the break with my idolatry of philosophy.
When did these sleepless nights begin?
They began in my youth, at about nineteen. It wasn’t simply a medical problem, it was deeper than that. It was the fundamental period of my life, the most serious experience. All the rest is secondary. Those sleepless nights opened my eyes, everything changed for me because of that.
Do you suffer it still?
A lot less. But that was a precise period, about six or seven years, where my whole perspective on the world changed. I think it’s a very important problem. It happens like this: normally someone who goes to bed and sleeps all night, the next day he begins a new life almost. It’s not simply another day, it’s another life. And so, he can undertake things, he can express himself, he has a present, a future, and so on. But for someone who doesn’t sleep, from the time of going to bed at night to waking up in the morning it’s all continuous, there’s no interruption. Which means, there is no suppression of consciousness. It all turns around that. So, instead of starting a new life, at eight in the morning you’re like you were at eight the evening before. The nightmare continues uninterrupted in a way, and in the morning, start what? Since there’s no difference from the night before. That new life doesn’t exist. The whole day is a trial, it’s the continuity of the trial. While everyone rushes toward the future, you are outside. So, when that’s stretched out for months and years, it causes the sense of things, the conception of life, to be forcibly changed. You don’t see what future to look forward to, because you don’t have any future. And I really consider that the most terrible, most unsettling, in short the principal experience of my life. There’s also the fact that you are alone with yourself. In the middle of the night, everyone’s asleep, you are the only one who is awake. Right away I’m not a part of mankind, I live in another world. And it requires an extraordinary will to not succumb.
Succumb to what, madness?
Yes. To the temptation of suicide. In my opinion, almost all suicides, about ninety percent say, are due to insomnia. I can’t prove that, but I’m convinced.
From Jason Weiss’s 1983 interview with Emil Cioran, which is now available in full at his website, Itineraries of a Hummingbird. The interview was originally published in Weiss’s book, Writing at Risk, which is now out of print.