Michel de Ghelderode: Spells & Vanity


How could we bear the weight and sheer depth of works and masterpieces, if to their texture certain impertinent and delicious minds had not added the fringes of subtle scorn and ready ironies? And how could we endure the codes, the customs, the paragraphs of the heart which inertia and propriety have superimposed upon the futile and intelligent vices, if it were not for those playful beings whose refinement puts them at once at the apex and in the margin of society?

—Emile Cioran, A Short History of Decay

From one of the tales in Michel de Ghelderode, Sortilèges et autres contes crépusculaires (Spells):

“As I was leaving the Beguinage one evening, the janitor approached me and asked me mischievously if I was happy with my companion. I replied that yes, staying to look at the little April stars in the poplars. Daniel still asking me why I sighed, I was not afraid to admit that I would have liked to be Pilatus, in eternal silence; a forgotten man of men, who knows how to write wonderfully and who never writes, knowing that everything is vanity.”

That last line I love… “a forgotten man of men, who knows how to write wonderfully and who never writes, knowing that everything is vanity.” For long I felt that same despair wandering through many libraries, looking at the tens of thousands (not counting the millions of bits in Library of Congress) of books, journals, etc. published each year, realizing there is already too much for any one human to read much less understand. It’s as if the vast accumulation of capitalist culture has ended in the labyrinth of the library as a vast hyper-chaos (Meillassoux) in which the only guide is a thin scarlet thread from Ariadne’s spindle; and, even it has fallen into dust in the vast maze of endless books and aisles.

I’ve read more than my share of books, pondered the supposed wisdom of the ages and realize that sense of the vanity of vanities. A sense that none of all those great books has offered us a solution to the ills of the human condition, and that in our late age it is far too late to believe books being published now can begin to change humans from their destructive self-annihilation. It would be nice to believe that we would wake up and realize that the earth is indifferent to our mistakes, our errors; but, the truth is she is not, and she has a surprise for us coming: death by stupidity in not realizing that the climate event we are in the midst of is going to change everything. Whether we survive it or not the world will be a realm of ruins and more of a hellish paradise than an Eden.

I will be dust before it happens, but feel a sense of apprehension and doom for all the innocents who have yet to be born who will inherit the ruins of our late capitalist culture and its dark heritage.

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