Cioran, comedian or martyr?

Cioran Presentation - 21 August 2007 - Australia

1. Introduction

About 12 years ago a close friend of mine mentioned the name Cioran for the first time. 'You like Nietzsche' he said. 'If you like Nietzsche, you'll definitely like Cioran'. When I saw one of his books during my regular wanderings in Amsterdam book shops, I bought it immediately. Thus Bitter Syllogisms (1954) was my first introduction to the grim and dark but also wonderful and, for those who see it, comical world of Emile Cioran.

Bitter Syllogisms, I could say one of the most famous and most admired amongst Cioran-fans all over the world - but then again that applies to practically all of his books -, was for a few years the only Cioran-book I had. And that is because Cioran writes so dense, is so engaging and at the same time so exhausting that after having read one chapter of his aphorisms - for that is the literary form he uses in Bitter Syllogisms and most of his other books - you feel like you have wrestled through several heavy volumes of philosophy. Cioran himself has said about his style: What I am saying is the result of something, of an interior process. And I give the result, but I am not writing the road and the process leading up to that result. Instead of publishing three pages, I suppress everything, except the conclusion.' You have to read Cioran, re-read him and the re-read him again many times. Slowly it starts to sink in. And even if you have the 'aha-erlebnis' upon the first reading of his aphorisms or one of the short and just as dense chapters of his other works, you want to re-read it again many times to make it your own.

Does that make Cioran your best friend, your spiritual guide in life? Not only is that a question I would have to answer in a negative way, it is also something Cioran himself would abhor. He definitely never intended to be anybody's guiding light. 'Aphorisms don't convert people, don't convince them. I don't want to convince', he said in an interview. If anything, Cioran teases the reader, he challenges, but as such he wants to give the reader something to think about, something that maybe disturbs the reader, that may change his outlook upon things. 'I think that a book has to leave a wound, that it has to change the life of a reader in one way or another. A book has to turn everything upside down, put everything into question.' Cioran hated nothing as much as set ideas, or worse: a 'fixed' philosophy, one might say a philosophy without room to breathe. 'If somebody writes an essay, he starts from certain fixed ideas and he remains the prisoner of these ideas.' Cioran hated this, reason why he chose the aphorism, reason also why he never constructed a typical 'Philosophy according to Cioran'. Reason why he hasn't been the subject of much academic approach, but then again that would be another thing he would only agree upon, as he loathed the academic world. 'I am an enemy of the University', he said in an interview. 'I think it is a danger, the death of the mind.'

Cioran continuously takes you out of your comfort zone and once you think that you've finally decided you are on a par with him, he slaps you in the face the next instant. Let me give you an example from The trouble with being born. 'Why fear the nothing in store for us when it is no different from the nothing which preceded us: this argument of the Ancients against the fear of death is unacceptable as consolation. Before, we had the luck not to exist; now we exist, and it is this particle of existence, hence of misfortune, which dreads death. Particle is not the word, since each of us prefers himself to the universe, at any rate considers himself equal to it', he said in The trouble with being born, in a reaction to the stoics, whom he much admired by the way.

There are many times when I come across an aphorism and find myself annoyed. I start accusing Cioran of being a teenager who has never learned the art of growing up. I have given this presentation the title Cioran, comedian or martyr? in the first place because that was the title of one of the essays on his work I found on the Internet, but it is also a great title for a presentation on Cioran. While reading his books you think all the time: Is this guy for real? He can't be THIS negative. When a Parisian lady once heard what titles Cioran had given to his books, she exclaimed: - 'But this man hates life!' - an anecdote that made Cioran himself laugh. If you read his interviews and then again go back to his books, you discover that there is so much more. That is to say IF you want to discover this. In circles of philosophers, academics and critics there are just as many people who love him as there are those who can't stand him. Cioran has always been controversial and he will undoubtedly continue to be considered controversial. But it may by now be quite clear where I stand in this.

I hope to be able to give you a little introduction into the work and the world of the man I consider one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century - if not THE most important thinker -, and I am not the only one. Amongst his many admirers is French writer Michel Houellebecq.

Cioran could indeed be called an heir of Nietzsche, even though that would be another title he would most strongly reject, in spite of his admiration for the German philosopher. Nietzsche is always being labelled 'the philosopher with the hammer' and as such it wouldn't be a bad idea to label Cioran 'the philosopher with the sledge hammer'. Not a bad title for a man who said that 'An aphorism has to be like a smack in the face.'

When I told my friend in Amsterdam that I was planning to do a presentation on Cioran, he said that that is almost impossible, as the only way to do him justice is to quote him extensively. I am happy to give you some quotes from his work, but I also think that there are certain recurrent themes in his work, even if it may not be a 'closed' philosophical system. But let me first tell you something about his life.

2. His life
Cioran was born in 1911 in the Transylvanian village of Rasinari as the son of an orthodox priest. He always refers to the first ten years as the happiest of his life. He loved life amongst the simple peasants, who were mostly illiterate. One of the famous anecdotes that abound, is that he used to play soccer with the skulls he found on the local cemetery. When his father took him away from the village when he was ten years old - he had to go to college in the small city of Sibiu - Cioran felt like he was taken out of paradise. All of this has left a heavy mark on him as a person and as a writer.

As an adolescent he suffered from insomnia, and he has many times acknowledged that this has been very influential on him as a writer. It made him sombre and withdrawn. His insomnia resulted in his first book in Rumanian, On the Heights of Despair, published in 1934. Clearly the work of an adolescent, it contains all the germs for the thoughts he would elaborate in his later works. The title is a take on news items on suicide that always start with: 'On the height of despair Mr so and so has taken his own life...'etc.

Cioran always stresses the relieving effect of writing. Writing is for him a necessity. He has said both that he would have become a murderer and that he would have committed suicide if he wouldn't have had the possibility to write. The idea of suicide is a recurring idea in both his books and his interviews. For Cioran the possibility of suicide, the possibility to end our lives on the moment we select ourselves, independent of some higher might, is a liberating idea that paradoxically prevents many people from actually committing this deed. 'We dread the future only when we are not sure we can kill ourselves when we want to.' [The trouble with being born]

'I don't support suicide, but I suport the idea of suicide', he has often said. And he also said many times that without this liberating idea, he might indeed very well have committed suicide. But he also said that many of his readers came to him to tell him they would have committed suicide if they wouldn't have had Cioran's books.

About the relieving effect of writing he said in an intreview: 'If you detest someone, just take a piece of paper and write 10, 20, 30 times: X is an asshole. And after a few minutes, you will feel relieved. You detest them less.'

The fact that he didn't want to be anybody's guide is also associated with the role his writing had for him. Cioran wrote for himself, to get rid of his demons.

Of course On the heights of despair was embarrassing for the son of an Orthodox priest. His mother once told him: 'If I would have known that you would become such a miserable person, I would have had an abortion.' In many interviews Cioran comes back upon this moment, as it was essential for his life and thoughts. After his mother had said this, he realised that life was a coincidence and as such it was a liberation for him, as he realised that life was meaningless. We will see further on which mark this left on his work.

Cioran studied philosophy in Bucharest and he graduated on a thesis on Bergson. In this period he also started to get fascinated by the movement of the Iron Guard, a sort of nationalistic/fascistic organisation in Rumania. Later in life he seldom spoke about this and as I know hardly anything about it, I am not getting into this any further.

In 1937 he wrote his last book in Rumanian, Tears and Saints, for me his first really great book. I will come back upon it later when I talk about his thoughts and philosophy.

He convinced the University Board that he needed a grant to continue his studies on Bergson in Paris. In 1937 he left Bucharest for Paris.

Initially he continued writing in Rumanian, but while translating the poet Mallarmé, he suddenly realised what nonsense it was to continue writing in Rumanian and from that moment onwards he wrote only in French. He finally got rid of his insomnia by exhausting himself through making long bicycle rides in the French countryside. His first book in French appeared in 1949 and was rewritten four times after Gallimard had accepted it. 'Precis de decomposition' - 'A little history of decay'. In the piece he wrote on the occasion of Cioran's death, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy said: 'In this book everything has been said and the only thing left for him is to repeat himself luxuriously, which he did.' - I couldn't agree more, as I consider this Cioran's most important book and the basis for his 'philosophy'- if he has any.

Cioran has often told how Gallimard was stuck with the 2000 copies of A short history of decay for the next 25 years. Even though he was a well-known name in (some) literary circles, it would take a few more decades before a wider audience would discover Cioran. Not that he cared a lot. He lived a low-profile life in the simple Parisian apartment where he would live till the end of his life, working on and off as a translator and proofreader while working on new books. In the fifties Cioran met Simone Boué, who would remain his partner for the rest of his life. They never married, nor did they have any children.

Even though Cioran led a low-profile life, he did move around in literary circles in the fifties and sixties. He was friends with the French/Rumanian writer, playwright and founder of the Theatre of the Absurd, Eugène Ionesco, and he also befriended another famous absurdist playwright, the Irish/French writer Samuel Beckett, best known for his play Waiting for Godot. Beckett would later end their friendship because he found Cioran too pessimistic.

As the years progressed, Cioran became more and more of a recluse, while his literary fame was rising, especially since the seventies. His books started to appear in translation and Cioran was sometimes invited for literary occasions, where he did interviews, a lot of which were published in the book Entretiens (Gallimard). Only available in French, if you speak the language highly recommended as it offers a very clear, simple, readable and at times funny account of Cioran's world.

In the second half of the eighties he gave up writing; he'd had it and he thought he had written enough. He continued doing interviews though, until he became the victim of dementia and lived his last year in forgetfulness, hardly recognising the few people visiting him in hospital. He died in 1995.

3. His ideas.
Many say it is hardly possible to say anything in general about Cioran's ideas, but I don't agree on this point. I think there are some recurring themes throughout his work, even though as a whole it keeps a highly fragmentary nature.

In his book Anathemas and Admirations Cioran calls himself 'The skeptic-on-duty of a decaying world'. That word, decay, is a key element in Cioran's world. But what exactly is 'decay' - as I think it is one of many words that have been used too extensively, reason why its meaning has been somewhat eroded.

You could say that for Cioran decay started with creation itself, to be more precise; with the creation of mankind, homo sapiens, with the focus on 'sapiens'. Knowledge created man's downfall and the idea of original sin is another key element in his work, if not THE key element everything can be carried back to.

I have told you before about the moment his mother told him she would have had an abortion if she would have known Cioran would be such a miserable person. I have also told you how this was an 'aha-erlebnis' for Cioran. This made everything clear; life had no meaning.

A recurring theme in his work, and the main theme in A short history of decay, is pride or haughtiness. The biblical idea of original sin: man deeming himself at least as important as God, if not more important. According to Cioran man cannot live with the idea that life has no meaning and that his own existence is insignificant. Man wants to see himself as the centre of the world, and according to Cioran that's where the trouble starts. Life must have a meaning. Man starts creating ideas, in itself no drama, as an idea as such should be neutral. But man cannot live with neutral ideas and has to attach his own passions to them. To make clear what Cioran means, let me read the following parts from the opening chapter of A short history of decay; Genealogy of Fanaticism:

"In itself, every idea is neutral, or should be; but man animates ideas, projects his flames and flaws into them; impure, transformed into beliefs, ideas take their place in time, take shape as events: the trajectory is complete, from logic to epilepsy...whence the birth of ideologies, doctrines, deadly games.

Idolaters by instinct, we convert the objects of our dreams and our interests into the Unconditional. History is nothing but a procession of false Absolutes, a series of temples raised to pretexts, a degradation of the mind before the Improbable. Even when he turns from religion, man remains subject to it; depleting himself to create fake gods, he then feverishly adopts them: his need for fiction, for mythology triumphs over evidence and absurdity alike. His power to adore is responsible for all his crimes: a man who loves a god unduly forces other men to love his god, eager to exterminate them if they refuse."

"Scaffolds, dungeons, jails flourish only in the shadow of a faith - of that need to believe which has infested the mind forever. The devil pales beside the man who owns a truth, his truth."

"Here certitudes abound: suppress them, best of all suppress their consequences, and you recover paradise. What is the Fall but the pursuit of a tuth and the assurance you have found it, the passion for a dogma, domicile within a dogma? The result is fanaticism - fundamental defect which gives man the craving for effectiveness, for prophecy, for terror."

"A human being possessed by a belief and not eager to pass it on to others is a phenomenon alien to the earth, where our mania for salvation makes life unbreathable."

"It is enough for me to hear someone talk sincerely about ideals, about the future, about philosophy, to hear him say "we" with a certain inflection of assurance, to hear him invoke "others" and regard himself as their interpreter - for me to consider him my enemy."

"Every faith practices some form of terror, all the more dreadful when the "pure" are its agents."

"All of life's evils come from a 'conception of life'"

"The fanatic is incorruptible: if he kills for an idea, he can just as well get himself killed for one; in either case, tyrant or martyr, he is a monster."

And in the next chapter, The Anti-Prophet, he says:

"History: a factory of ideals...lunatic mythology, frenzy of hordes and of solitaries...refusal to look reality in the face, mortal thirst for fictions..."

"The source of our actions resides in an unconscious propensity to regard ourselves as the center, the cause, and the conclusion of time. Our reflexes and our pride transform into a planet the parcel of flesh and consciousness we are. If we had the right sense of our position in the world, if to compare were inseperable from to live, the revelation of our infinitesimal presence would crush us. But to live is to blind ourselves to our own dimensions..."

From this it may become more clear why and how Cioran was opposed to systems, be it religious, political or philosophical. As Bernard-Henri Levy said in the aforementioned article: 'He puked on builders of systems.'

The above idea of man as the centre of the world, his world, is closely related to the Nietzschean idea of 'Der Wille zur Macht' - The will to power. Cioran was fascinated by man's underlying motives for his actions. This is an idea we may come across in the work of many thinkers throughout the ages, but for Cioran it was a key element in his work. Man is an opportunistic animal, an 'indirect' animal, as he calls him in A short history of Decay. 'Whereas the animals proceed directly to their goal, man loses himself in detours; he is the indirect animal par excellence.' Thus all our actions have an underlying motive and this is another key element in Cioran's thoughts, related to the above.

I mentioned the book Tears and Saints as the first real important work by Cioran. When he suffered from his insomnia, he developed an obsessive interest in the lives of saints, this in spite of the fact that he didn't believe in a god himself. He always said he would have loved to be able to believe, but he simply couldn't. Nevertheless, he started talking to 'God' when he suffered from insomnia. As there was no one else to talk to, the idea of a 'God' presented itself automatically, he said in an interview.

In Tears and Saints the idea of 'the will to power' is a central theme. Cioran sees in the suffering of saints a means to (in the end) exert their will and thus their influence - say: make sure their meaningless lives become important, even beyond the grave. The following aphorism is a good illustration of this idea:

"Could saints have a will to power? Is their world imperialistic? The answer is yes, but one must take into account the change of direction. While we waste our energy in the struggle for temporary gains, their great pride makes them aspire to absolute possession. For them, the space to conquer is the sky, and their weapon, suffering. If God were not the limit of their ambition, they would compete in ultimates, and each would speak in the name of yet another infinity. Man is forever a proprietor. Not even the saints could escape this mediocrity. Their madness has divided up heaven in unequal portions, each according to the pride they take in their sufferings. The saints have redirected imperialism vertically, and raised the earth to its supreme appearance, the heavens."
Cioran was looking for nothingnesss, the void, the Buddhist nirvana. Only when man has reached this, real freedom and real happiness is possible. You could say that he was looking for Nirvana via dark and negative means, where Buddhism takes a somewhat lighter path. But in the end they are looking for the same, and it is no surprise that Buddhism was the only religion Cioran felt any affinity with. 'Buddhism shows you your non-reality' he once said, and that must have been music to his ears. But in the end he realised he couldn't go all the way with Buddhism, even though he recognized everything; renouncing the will, destruction of the self and as such victory over the self. He acknowledged for instance that he got angry very easily, and that is completely unacceptable in Buddhism.

4. The importance and place of Cioran.
You may wonder why I am so fascinated by a writer who is not easy, nor positive, and I have to admit that I have asked myself that question many times. Maybe Cioran himself gives the best answer when he says that 'the optimism of utopians is depressing and merciless'. I couldn't agree more. When people try to point out the idea of progress, Cioran points to history which he calls 'the antidote of progress'. I can't really blame him, even though I see things a little different and more optimistic.

For me Cioran is somehow the best medicine against depression. After a few pages Cioran I always feel mentally invigorated. Reading Cioran not only confirms that the world is a meaningless place full of evil - and it is very nice when this is being acknowledged - it also leaves the freedom he is talking about, the void we are looking for and that I consider a void that has to be filled by myself, in a way I want, but without a system, utopia or ideology that weighs too heavy on my shoulders. At such I consider his quest for nothingness, for the void, as the search for something new, the search for real liberation. You can't construct life on a false base. You are nowhere if you don't first detect the flaws and shortcomings of life and especially of human existence.

I recognised myself in the following words of Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater in an interview with Cioran; 'In all your books, next to the aspect we could call pessimistic and black, there shines a strange joy, an inexplicable but stimulating happiness, even life-encouraging.'

And this week I happened to be leafing through an old copy of the French Magazine Litteraire, dedicated to the theme 'Hate'. The article on fundamentalism ended with the following lines, which perfectly explain why I can't get enough of Cioran:

'These days there is a lot of talk about the end of all utopias - I doubt it, but the end of utopias wouldn't be a terrible blow: One would finally find the time to focus on mankind itself; maybe that would be a new chance for humanism.'

Finally I would like to give the word to Cioran himself, who said in The trouble with being born: 'The certitude that there is no salvation is a form of salvation, in fact it is salvation. Starting from here, we might organize our own life as well as construct a philosophy of history: the insoluble as solution, as the only way out...'

I hope I have given you some insight in the life and work of Emile Cioran. Even though I have been reading him for ten years, I often have the idea that I've only just begun. Cioran definitely is one of those writers you could devote your life to and there is a lot more to say about him, as I had to leave many things out.

I know he is very controversial and like I said before: I don't have the idea that that is going to change, nor would I want it to change, because that would mean the definitive death of Cioran.


Emile Cioran [1911-1995]

Some aphorisms:

The trouble with being born:

'Seen from the outside, harmony reigns in every sect, clan, and party; seen from the inside, discord. Conflicts in a monastery are as frequent and as envenomed as in any society. Even when they desert hell, men do so only to reconstruct it elsewhere.'

'Look neither ahead nor behind, look into yourself, with neither fear nor regret. No one descends into himself so long as he remains a slave of the past or of the future.'

'I suppressed word after word from my vocabulary. When the massacre was over, only one has escaped: Solitude. I awakened euphoric.'

'A book is a postponed suicide.'

'I begin a letter over and over again, I get nowhere: what to say and how to say it? I don't even remember whom I was writing to. Only passion or profit find at once the right tone. Unfortunately detachment is indifference to language, insensitivity to words. Yet it is by losing contact with words that we lose contact with human beings.'

On the heights of despair:

'I do not like prophets any more than I like fanatics who have never doubted their mission. I measure prophets' value by their ability to doubt, the frequency of their moments of lucidity.'

'To possess a high degree of consciousness, to be always aware of yourself in relation to the world, to live in the permanent tension of knowledge, means to be lost for life. Knowledge is the plague of life, and consciousness, an open wound in its heart.'

Cioran in an interview with Swiss journalist Jean-François Duval:

'From the moment you have accepted existence, you have to accept prostitution.'
Kees Bakhuyzen

1 comment:

  1. Writing is a martyrdom, a painful feeling of the necessity to speak up the heavy thoughts haunted mind which have a destiny to be neglected and ignored by the majority of the readers. Writing had been a martyrdom for Cioran, who knew the feeling of bitterness of the lost and re - examined convictions. The term attributed by Leo Shestov to both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky implies the symbolic, but really happed demarcation of life: the rise and fall of convictions shape the life span. Indeed, Parisian Cioran likewise Nietzsche after break with Wagner or Dostoevsky after exile has been a man, a martyr undergoing onerous vocation of writer: to speak up the repellent truths.