Dubious Raptures

It’s always fascinating to witness the arrival of book that doesn’t exist. The publication of Exercises négatifs, which was E.M. Cioran’s original title for the manuscript that later became Précis de Décomposition (his first book to be written in french and doubtlessly his best known), amounts to an important event, an indication of the growing popularity of this Roumanian-born writer. Just ten years after his death, his readers (or leastwise his publishers) have such an appetite for new works beyond the fifteen that he published during his lifetime (which had already been followed in 1997 by the excellent one-thousand pages of his Cahiers 1957-1972). Clearly, despair and elegance are still greatly appealing these days.

A Warning

But the celebration is somewhat spoiled and our pleasure diminished. The problem arises primarily from the choice of a title – Exercise négatifs – that leads us to expect something that this publication does not, in fact, offer. What we do find is a collection of a certain number of unfinished passages that Cioran had included in his first version of Précis before deciding to delete them as work on this book progressed. In other words, we don’t (except for a group of passages that are gathered together in a chapter entitled “Variantes définitives”) find first-drafts of published texts or, for that matter, subsequent drafts. The title Exercises négatifs should, rightly, designate the first version of Précis as a whole. In point of fact, however, its use for the present publication suggests that it was a different book altogether, written apart from Précis, even though the real “Exercises négatifs” are the Précis in its embryonic form. In addition to this problem, the order in which the passages themselves are presented is regrettable. The editor has adopted the classification established by the Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet, which is not, unfortunately, the one chosen by Cioran himself for the numbering of his texts.

In spite of its title, then, this volume does not really offer us Cioran’s Exercises négatifs; such is the warning that we do not receive from Ingrid Astier, who edited, introduced, and annotated this volume. These criticisms may seem like quibbles, but it is nevertheless true (think of Pascal’s Pensées) that unfinished work requires certain editorial precautions.

Exclamations of a Reprobate

These cavils aside (I expect that future editions will clarify things, even at the risk of confusing them even further…), the transcription and the publication of these manuscripts have the great merit of allowing us to read what Cioran deemed unworthy of being read, passages that he himself censured. These vigorous first drafts, supplemented by a chapter entitled “Vers les syllogismes de l’amertume”, overflow with vehement paragraphs : Cioran’s first, impetuous spurts, which are, indeed, excessive in their content. Their style, although not excessively awkward, has yet to undergo its later refinements.

Précis ; provocative statements on such themes as hope, love, and marriage (“a spasm blessed by the mayor and the priest”) ; anecdotes, alternating between the grotesque and the burlesque, of a metaphysician immersed, in spite of himself, in a vulgar world (a “Hamlet amidst the dressmakers” who, at a dance, reflects that “the hatred that one reads in the eyes of young girls whom no one has asked for a dance terrifies me more than does an operating room”); declarations of war against literary critics and, even more, against professors (whom he describes as “reading machines that transform the solitude of a few exceptional spirits into commodities for idiots”) ; lengthy flights around the theme of suicide, whose deletion from the Précis suggests, not that the somber moralist had a moral philosophy (!), but that he recognized the weakness of the idea that the thought of suicide was superior to suicide itself (“Suicide as a means of knowledge,” “Enlivening death,” etc.). Above all, one finds, in page after page, the aggressive skepticism of a thinker who has given up his earlier political enthusiasms and who invites us all (this is in 1946) to give up our certitudes as he did, to fight against all ideologies, and to imitate, if not the sage’s indifference, at least the philosopher’s doubt.

Beyond the obsession with death and Cioran’s trademark skepticism, the reader is struck by the “histrionic” triteness of some passages, which is only the bitter farce, bad intentions, idle fulminations, and abusive caricatures of a picturesque misanthrope.

All of this is not the best Cioran, or the most subtle, or the most poetic – but it is, to be sure, the most furious ; it is also continuously excellent. These one hundred and fifty rich, “unpublished” pages offer rewarding hours to their intrepid readers, including the philosophers among them (“The vogue of death in contemporary philosophy”), the historians (“Europe, a carrion-ridden land”), and writers (passages on the great Roumanian poet Eminescu and on “The importance of wickedness”).

A Wicked, Despairing Misanthrope

These chapters, which Cioran had rejected, should not diminish the growing world-wide reputation of this “écrivain maudit” who was born in a peaceful Transylvanian village. More than the purified style to come, these “trompe l’oeil” Exercises négatifs reveal the passionate, indeed the explosive temperament of Cioran with pen in hand. Although Ingrid Astier’s postface begins by quoting George Perros’s mitigating idea that “there cannot be a despairing work since the motive that gave birth to it is affirmative” and concludes with uplifting remarks about the author’s “fundamental respect for human beings,” Cioran does not seem to be especially full of hope when, for example, he says: “Any philosophy that sets out with the intention of finding reasons for hope is, by that very fact, forever disqualified” or “Has one ever heard a hopeful song that does not arouse a slight feeling of disgust?” Cioran, who was so elegant, shows himself here as also decidedly disrespectful, spiteful, and devilishly embittered. This is because, as he says, “Everyone has his model; I need one that is scornful, wicked, and lucid.”

Nicolas Cavaillès
Translated by Thomas Cousineau

October 2005
Extases frelatées - En marge du Précis de Décomposition
Nicolas Cavaillès

Emil Cioran

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Emil Cioran

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Emil Cioran

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Cioran with Michael I (former King of Romania)

Cioran together with Michael I  (former King of Romania)

Rue de l"odéon - Paris

Street in Paris where Cioran lived most of his life

House where Cioran was born

Răşinari (Romania), the house where Cioran was born.
Public domain picture

Emil Cioran - Simone Boué

Source: unknown

Petre Tutea despre Cioran

..."Cioran e o inteligenta pura. Pai, pentru ca sa te fatai ca el prin Paris, trebuie sa ai inteligenta. Ca acolo inteligenta este! Are o singura trasatura inadmisibila in fiinta lui: e neconsolator. Eu m-as intalni cu Cioran in nelinistile mele, care seamana cu ale lui, iar el s-ar intalni cu misticismul meu in lirismul lui. In ce priveste cearta lui cu Divinitatea, eu sper ca Cioran sa nu moara aici unde s-a nascut, cum a murit Kant. Eu pe Cioran il vad impacat in amurg cu sine, cu Sfantul Apostol Pavel si cu Absolutul divin, pentru a nu muri in lumea aceasta. Ceea ce e ciudat la Cioran nu e nelinistea de a fi om, ci nelinistea de a fi roman."...

Petre Tutea - 322 de vorbe memorabile ale lui Petre Tutea -

Petre Tutea - Interviu TVR

Fragment dintr-un interviu cu Petre Tutea, realizat de TVR in 1990.

Guido Ceronetti über Cioran

..."Mit Ciorans Büchlein lebt man in inniger Verbundenheit. Die Betrügerei, die schwerer auf uns lastet als eine Smogglocke, schweigt in diesen Seiten strenger Klage endlich still. Nach und nach drängt sich uns sein Porträt vom Menschen wie er heute ist, wie ihn Zivilisation, Geschichte, Religion und Fortschritt werden ließen, auf wie eine Art heitere Rechtlichkeit, eine Art freudige, fröhliche Hinrichtung, so wie sie Hogarth dargestellt hat. Am Ende eines Abschnitts befällt einen zuweilen die Lust, vor Freude aufzujubeln, wie an der Stelle in Oliver Twist, als Fagin endlich den Galgen besteigt. An den Menschen zu glauben, ist verfluchter Götzendienst, Sünde der Sünden, Irrtum der Irrtümer. Die Unterscheidung zwischen denen, die an den Menschen glauben, und solchen, die nicht an ihn glauben, ist notwendig; doch würde man uns zusammenzählen, uns, die wir radikal (und völlig selbstverständlich , als ließe ein wacher Geist nichts anderes zu) nicht an den Menschen glauben, wären wir wirklich nur ein paar."...

Guido Ceronetti - Lebe wohl, Cioran -

Ion Caramitru über Cioran

...'Man bedenke, wie schwierig der Zugang zu Ciorans philosophischem System ist und wie viele Vorkenntnisse man braucht, um es zu begreifen! Desto überraschter war ich, daß Cioran in seinem persönlichen Umgang von ganz außergewöhnlicher Schlichtheit war. Seine Sprache war, man möchte sagen: von bäuerlicher Einfachheit, präzise, aufs Wesentliche reduziert. Er war bescheiden, ja zog sich mitunter schüchtern hinter seine Entdeckungen zurück. Für mich ist Cioran der erdverbundene Bauer, der mit dem Zwerchsack und der Fibel von zu Hause wegging und die Welt eroberte mit einer Intelligenz, die in seinem Heimatort, seinem Land und dem geistigen Wesen seines Volkes lebte."...

Der rumänische Kulturminister und Schauspieler Ion Caramitru erinnert sich an Emil Cioran - Hermannstädter Zeitung Nr. 1573/8. Mai 1998

Friedgard Thoma über Cioran

..."Als mir Cioran 1989 die deutsche Übersetzung seines rumänischen Erstlingswerk Auf den Gipfeln der Verzweiflung schickte, schrieb er in ein klein wenig fehlerhaften Deutsch hinein: Hatte ich nicht in meiner Jugend dies Geheuel produziert, seit lange hätte ich die Bühne verlassen. Da er sie nicht verlassen hatte, blieb er immerfort mit der Todeswunde auf der Bühne liegen und heulte - aber er hat einen Gesang daraus gemacht..."...

Friedgard Thoma

Friedgard Thoma - Um nichts in der Welt - Eine Liebe von Cioran - Weidle Verlag, 2001

Olavo de Carvalho on Cioran

..."Cioran cannot be read literally, or else you will blow your brains out. That is something he himself did not do, what shows us he was aware of the dose of irony in his writings (he used to say he was a fraud and that people would see that if they understood him). Cioran takes the stand in the name of the devil, prosecutor of humanity, and defies us to take charge of the defense. Playing among patent truths and truthlike exaggeration, he always leaves us an opening for salvation, and it is precisely in these hiatuses, in these calculated failings inside his argument, that lies the most intelligent part of his work, in truth more pedagogic or psycho-therapeutic than philosophical. Cioran can induce you to despair, to stoic resignation, or to resuming faith and hope. He can be poison or medication: it is up to you to decide."...

Olavo de Carvalho - Philosophy is not for the timid - Interview of Olavo de Carvalho to Zora Seljan
Translated by Assunção Medeiros -

Mircea Eliade on Cioran

..."How I admire E. M. Cioran for his incomparable mastery of the art of letter writing. I think I have penetrated his secret: Cioran never writes a letter out of obligation, or because he has nothing better to do, but only when he feels the need to communicate with someone, whether friend or stranger. And his letter reflects his mood at the moment, a nontemporal mood in a way--in any case, beyond the historical moment."...

In his journal - No Souvenirs (1957-1969) - University Of Chicago Press


What will be the physiognomy of painting, of poetry, of music, in a hundred years? No one can tell. As after the fall of Athens, of Rome, a long pause will intervene, caused by the exhaustion of consciousness itself. Humanity, to rejoin the past, must invent a second naiveté, without which the arts can never begin again.
- The Trouble with Being Born

In certain men, everything, absolutely everything, derives from physiology: their body is their mind, their mind is their body.

- The Trouble with Being Born

Better to be an animal than a man, an insect than an animal, a plant than an insect, and so on. Salvation? Whatever diminishes the kingdom of consciousness and compromises its supremacy.

- The Trouble with Being Born

To stretch out in a field, to smell the earth and tell yourself it is the end as well as the hope of our dejections, that it would be futile to search for anything better to rest on, to dissolve into. .

- The Trouble with Being Born

Paradise was unendurable, otherwise the first man would have adapted to it; this world is no less so, since here we regret paradise or anticipate another one. What to do? where to go? Do nothing and go nowhere, easy enough.

- The Trouble with Being Born

Philosophers write for professors; thinkers for writers.

- Drawn and Quartered

Man is the great deserter of being.

- The Fall into Time

Suffering makes you live time in detail, moment after moment. Which is to say that it exists for you: over the others, the ones who don't suffer, time flows, so that they don't live in time, in fact they never have.

- The New Gods

From denial to denial, his existence is diminished: vaguer and more unreal than a syllogism of sighs, how could he still be a creature of flesh and blood? Anemic, he rivals the Idea itself; he has abstracted himself from his ancestors, from his friends, from every soul and himself; in his veins, once turbulent, rests a light from another world. Liberated from what he has lived, unconcerned by what he will live; he demolishes the signposts on all his roads, and wrests himself from the dials of all time. "I shall never meet myself again," he decides, happy to turn his last hatred against himself, happier still to annihilate--in his forgiveness--all beings, all things.

- A Short History of Decay

What life is left him robs him of what reason is left him. Trifles or scourges--the passing of a fly or the cramps of the planet--horrify him equally. With his nerves on fire, he would like the Earth to be made of glass, to shatter it to smithereens; and with what thirst would fling himself toward the stars to reduce them to powder, one by one.

- A Short History of Decay

If truth were not boring, science would have done away with God long ago. But God as well as the saints is a means to escape the dull banality of truth.

- Tears and Saints

The only profitable conversations are with enthusiasts who have ceased being so—with the ex-naïve…Calmed down at last, they have taken, willy-nilly, the decisive step toward knowledge— that impersonal version of disappointment.

- Drawn and Quartered

As long as I live I shall not allow myself to forget that I shall die; I am waiting for death so that I can forget about it.

- Tears and Saints

What to think of other people? I ask myself this question each time I make a new acquaintance. So strange does it seem to me that we exist, and consent to exist.

- Drawn and Quartered

My mission is to suffer for all those who suffer without knowing it. I must pay for them, expiate their unconsciousness, their luck to be ignorant of how unhappy they are.

- The Trouble with Being Born

We smile, because no answer is conceivable, because the answer would be even more meaningless than the question.

- The Trouble with Being Born

I feel I am free but I know I am not.

- The Trouble with Being Born

Cioran - Amazon US
Cioran - Amazon UK


Born in 1911 in Rasinari, a small village in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, raised under the rule of a father who was a Romanian Orthodox priest and a mother who was prone to depression, Emil Cioran wrote his first five books in Romanian. Some of these are collections of brief essays (one or two pages, on average); others are collections of aphorisms. Suffering from insomnia since his adolescent years in Sibiu, the young Cioran studied philosophy in the “little Paris” of Bucarest. A prolific publicist, he became a well-known figure, along with Mircea Eliade, Constantin Noïca, and his future close friend Eugene Ionesco (with whom he shared the Royal Foundation’s Young Writers Prize in 1934 for his first book, On the Heights of Despair).

Influenced by the German romantics, by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and the Lebensphilosophie of Schelling and Bergson, by certain Russian writers, including Chestov, Rozanov, and Dostoyevsky, and by the Romanian poet Eminescu, Cioran wrote lyrical and expansive meditations that were often metaphysical in nature and whose recurrent themes were death, despair, solitude, history, music, saintliness and the mystics (cf. Tears and Saints, 1937) – all of which are themes that one finds again in his French writings. In his highly controversial book, The Transfiguration of Romania (1937), Cioran, who was at that time close to the Romanian fascists, violently criticized his country and his compatriots on the basis of a contrast between such “little nations” as Romania, which were contemptible from the perspective of universal history and great nations, such as France or Germany, which took their destiny into their own hands.

After spending two years in Germany, Cioran arrived in Paris in 1936. He continued to write in Romanian until the early 1940s (he wrote his last article in Romanian in 1943, which is also the year in which he began writing in French). The break with Romanian became definitive in 1946, when, in the course of translating Mallarmé, he suddenly decided to give up his native tongue since no one spoke it in Paris. He then began writing in French a book that, thanks to numerous intensive revisions, would eventually become the impressive A Short History of Decay (1949) -- the first of a series of ten books in which Cioran would continue to explore his perennial obsessions, with a growing detachment that allies him equally with the Greek sophists, the French moralists, and the oriental sages. He wrote existential vituperations and other destructive reflections in a classical French style that he felt was diametrically opposed to the looseness of his native Romanian; he described it as being like a “straight-jacket” that required him to control his temperamental excesses and his lyrical flights. The books in which he expressed his radical disillusionment appeared, with decreasing frequency, over a period of more than three decades, during which time he shared his solitude with his companion Simone Boué in a miniscule garret in the center of Paris, where he lived as a spectator more and more turned in on himself and maintaining an ever greater distance from a world that he rejected as much on the historical level (History and Utopia, 1960) as on the ontological (The Fall into Time, 1964), raising his misanthropy to heights of subtlety (The Trouble with being Born, 1973), while also allowing to appear from time to time a humanism composed of irony, bitterness, and preciosity (Exercices d’admiration, 1986, and the posthumously published Notebooks).

Denied the right to return to Romania during the years of the communist regime, and attracting international attention only late in his career, Cioran died in Paris in 1995.

Nicolas Cavaillès

Translated by Thomas Cousineau

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