One of the most palpable pleasures of the academic life is to find a new thinker, a new author who challenges, excites, infuriates, or simply makes one prick up one’s ears. So much the better to stumble upon a thinker who has a long list of books just waiting to be explored, deconstructed, and enjoyed. My recent encounter with Emil Cioran’s collection of essays, The Temptation to Exist, is the intellectual equivalent to my first listen to Tom Wait’s Closing Time as an undergraduate, where the joy of discovery is only deepened with the knowledge that there are – in the case of Waits – albums like Rain Dogs and Bone Machine waiting in the wings. Unlike Waits, Cioran is no longer living and working among us, so his body of work is bounded in time, but there is still a lifetime of writing to anticipate reading. I’ve got two more of his books waiting for me at home already. I’ve come to Cioran by recommendation of Deane, who is, according to one commenter, The Dunedin School’s ‘archblogger’, who has yet to recommend to me a bad book, which is in itself rather remarkable.
Cioran, born in Romania in 1911 with a Romanian Orthodox priest for a father, took to philosophy early in life, travelling to Berlin in 1933, where he developed a certain sympathy for the Nazis and for the Romanian nationalistic organisation The Iron Guard, despite the fact that violence of any kind made him uncomfortable. Cioran spent much of his adult life working and living largely as a hermit in France and he would eventually repudiate all of his ties to the political right, expressing his regret clearly in later interviews. He died in 2005, leaving a mass of unpublished work that is still tied up in the French courts. Reading Cioran is maddening, joyous, and difficult. Understanding him is, if anything, even worse. Writing in the aphoristic philosophical tradition that includes such diverse figures as Nietzsche, Baudrillard, and Wittgenstein, Cioran is one to read and to ponder in mad, great lumps or in discrete bites. I can’t pretend to have mined any of this with any thoroughness, but I’ve included some highlights, some things that caught my attention, that pricked up my ears.
Cioran, in ‘Thinking Against Oneself’, betraying his history of sympathy to fascism (which, though this is a troubling thought, does not mean that he is wrong):
Almost all our discoveries are due to our violence, to the exacerbation of our instability. Even God, insofar as He [sic] interests us – it is not in our innermost selves that we discern God, but at the extreme limits of our fever, at the very point where, our rage confronting His, a shock results, an encounter as ruinous for Him as for us (33).
In the same essay, on Christianity:
But the Christian virus torments us: heirs of the flagellants, it is by refining our excruciations that we become conscious of ourselves. Is religion declining? We perpetuate its extravagances, as we perpetuate the macerations and the cell-shrieks of old, our will to suffer equalling that of the monasteries in their heyday. If the Church no longer enjoys a monopoly on hell, it has nonetheless riveted us to a chain of sighs, to the cult of the ordeal, of blasted joys and jubilant despair … No sage among our ancestors, but malcontents, triflers, fanatics whose disappointments or excesses we must continue (34-35).
Wherever there is suffering, it exhausts mystery or renders it luminous (39).
The only minds which seduce us are the minds which have destroyed themselves trying to give their lives a meaning (45).
From ‘On a Winded Civilisation’ on the intellectual life (and this hits very close to home):
The tired intellectual sums up the deformities and the vices or a world adrift. He does not act, he suffers; if he favors the notion of tolerance, he does not find in it the stimulant he needs. Tyranny furnished that, as do the doctrines of which it is the outcome. If he is the first of its victims, he will not complain: only the strength that grinds him into the dust seduces him. To want to be free is to want to be oneself; but he is tired of being himself, of blazing a trail into uncertainty, of stumbling through truths. ‘Bind me with the chains of Illusion’, he sighs, even as he says farewell to the peregrinations of Knowledge. Thus he will fling himself, eyes closed, into any mythology which will assure him the protection and the peace of the yoke (57-58).
The future belongs to the suburbs of the globe (64).
In ‘A Little Theory of Destiny’ and ‘Advantages of Exile’, Cioran explores the idea of exile and living as an expatriate, which is very much on my mind on as I am on a short trip back to my American hometown of Boulder, Colorado (the New Age capital of the universe), a place I love and hate in equal measure – and his writing captures some of the essence of my experience so well that is almost chilling:
The aspiration to ‘save’ the world is the morbid phenomenon of a people’s youth (66).
Hating my people, my country, its timeless peasants enamored of their own torpor and almost bursting with hebetude, I blushed to be descended from them, repudiated them, rejected their sub-eternity, their larval certainties, the geologic reverie. No use scanning their features for their fidgets, the grimaces of revolt: the monkey, alas! was dying in them. In truth, did they not sprout from the very rock? Unable to rouse them, or to animate them, I came to the point of dreaming of an extermination. One does not massacre stones. The spectacle they offered me justified and baffled, nourished and disgusted my hysteria. And I never stopped cursing the accident that caused me to be born among them (70).
It is a mistake to think of the expatriate as someone who abdicates, who withdraws and humbles himself, resigned to his miseries, his outcast state. On a closer look, he turns out to be ambitious, aggressive in his disappointments, his very acrimony qualified by his belligerence. The more we are dispossessed, the more intense our appetites and our illusions become (74).
On poetry, an analysis that fits New Zealand, a decidedly minor nation that is very fond of poetry, like a glove:
Consider the production of any ‘minor’ nation which has not been so childish as to make up a past for itself: the abundance of poetry is its most striking characteristic. Prose requires, for its development, a certain rigor, a differentiated social status, and a tradition: it is deliberate, constructed; poetry wells up: it is direct or else totally fabricated; the prerogative of cave men or aesthetes, it flourishes only on the near or far side of civilization, never at the center. Whereas prose demands a premeditated genius and a crystallized language, poetry is perfectly compatible with a barbaric genius and a formless language (76).
In ‘A People of Solitaries’, which on occasion strays dangerously close to an unformed, casual anti-Semitism, Cioran offers as astute, troubling look at Judaism in European history:
To be a man is a drama; to be a Jew is another. Hence, the Jew has the privilege of living our condition twice over. He represents the alienated existence par excellence or, to utilize an expression by which the theologians describe God, the wholly other (80).
However grave its consequences may have been, the rejection of Christianity remains the Jews’ finest exploit, a no which does them honor. If previously they had walked alone by necessity, they would henceforth do so by resolve, as outcasts armed with a great cynicism, the sole precaution they have taken against the future (85).
The tragic hero rarely seeks an accounting from a blind, impersonal Fate: it is his pride to accept its decrees. He will perish, then, he and his. But a Job harasses his God, demands an accounting: a formal summons results, of a sublime bad taste, which would doubtless have repelled a Greek but which touches, which overwhelms us. These outpourings, these vociferations of a plagued man who offers conditions to Heaven and submerges it with his imprecations – how can we remain insensitive to such a thing? The closer we are to abdicating, the more these cries disturb us. Job is indeed of his race: his sobs are a show of force, an assault. ‘My bones are pierced in me in the night season’, he laments. His lamentation culminates in a cry, and this cry rises through the vaults of Heaven and makes God tremble. Insofar as, beyond our silences and our weaknesses, we dare lament our ordeals, we are all descendents of the great leper, heirs of his desolation and his moan. But too often our voices fall silent; and though he shows us how to work ourselves to his accents, he does not manage to shake us out of our inertia. Indeed, he has the best of it: he knew Whom to vilify or implore, Whom to attack or pray to. But we – against whom are we to cry out? Our own kind? That seems to us absurd. No sooner articulated than our rebellions expire on our lips … Job has transmitted his energy to his own people: thirsting like him for justice, they never yield before the evidence of an iniquitous world. Revolutionaries by instinct, the notion of renunciation fails to occur to them: if Job, that Biblical Prometheus, struggled with God, they would struggle with men (99-100).
There is so much more that could be said about The Temptation to Exist, but it is late and I will leave you with a final note, from ‘Some Blind Alleys: A Letter’, in which Cioran, writing decades before the rise of the now dominant therapeutic ethos and the repellent spectacle of reality television, sees into the future with a striking clarity:
The confessional? a rape of conscience perpetrated in the name of heaven. And that other rape, psychological analysis! Secularized, prostituted, the confessional will soon be installed on our street corners: except for a couple of criminals, everyone aspires to have a public soul, a poster soul (109).
Never have I wanted more to be a criminal, and more ashamed to be working – with these very words – towards a public soul.
 E. M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist, translated by Richard Howard, with an Introduction by Susan Sontag (London: Quartet Encounters, 1987). All page numbers cited in parenthesis refer to this version of the text.
(Incidentally, The Dunedin School has been ranked #35 on the Biblioblog Top 50 list this month, which is kind of funny, as some of us aren’t even Biblical scholars, though we are constantly running into that damned thing.)