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The philosopher - or le negator - E.M. Cioran says in a rare interview that he wanted to be the most clairvoyant man. Such ambition could come with a hefty price tag, one might assume. Nicknamed by some as the "Nietzsche of our time" (or "Nietzsche with a sledge-hammer"), would Cioran end up just as wretched as his philosophical forebear but still profoundly influencing the thought of other thinkers and the coming generations ?
Cioran grew up in a village in Romania but changed country and language when he moved to Paris in 1937 to write a dissertation on Henri Bergson's philosophy. Cioran, the insomniac and night-wanderer, was 26 years old at the time. The dissertation never saw the light of day and Cioran mostly drifted around and stayed in cheap hotels in the Latin Quarter. He was still enrolled at the Sorbonne University and was to sponge food from the campus dining hall until the early 1950ies, he "parasitized at the university" as he put it. Relatively little is known about what Cioran did between the years 1937 and 1949 but in an interview he states that he tried to translate French texts into Romanian and that he took long bike rides to explore the french countryside and during the breaks from cycling he could lie and smoke in between the tombstones of a cemetery. You could say that he tried to lie low.
Can one argue that much of what Cioran published from 1949 and onwards can be read as a reaction to - or a negation of - his violent politics in Romania in the 1930s ? It was a period when he allegedly sympathized with the fascist organization the Iron Guard and in pamphlet prose wrote appreciatively about Hitler and that “there is no more sympathetic or admirable politician today ”. He pleaded for a new fanatical Romanian nationalism based on a cult of irrational power, just as in Hitler's Germany. Cioran wrote in the book "Transfiguration de la Roumanie" that the transformation was about transforming the 'mediocre' Romania from a country without history to a nation that made history. In the 1990s he would comment on this period: "To make history was the word that came to our lips continuously: it was the main word. We improvised our destiny; we were rebellious against our nothingness. And we were not afraid of the ridiculous. Because our knowledge was insufficient, our experience illusory; but our deception had to be solid, unbreakable. This became our law ...We fell to the level of our country"
A long silence followed after the move to Paris in 1937. In the winter of 1940 to 1941, however, Cioran made one last attempt to influence Romanian politics when he returned to take part in an Iron Guard orchestrated coup d'etat. In connection with the (subsequently failed) coup attempt, Cioran gave a fiery radio speech in which he paid tribute to the founder and the leader of the Iron Guard, Corneliu Codreanu. The coup was crushed and those responsible were severely punished, strangely enough Cioran escaped punishment. Back in France he was allowed to act, for two and a half months, as a Romanian envoy to the Vichy regime.
"After certain experiences we should change names, because we ourselves are no longer the same”
Once back in France, it was as if Cioran was gradually changing his identity and he would never again return to Romania. He changed his name from Emil to the more French-sounding Émile, however, in writing he exclusively used the initials E.M (inspired by the author E.M Forster). And he began writing in French, a language he described as something between "the strait-jacket and the salon". In 1949 the book "A Short history of decay" was published in French in which Cioran appears as a profound skeptic who is sometimes so ravingly pessimistic-nihilistic that he becomes comical. He is like a lyrical poet who despises philosophy but still carries on philosophizing on the "Graveyard of definitions". And the first essay in that first french book is called "The Genealogy of Fanaticism", it is like a sharp incisive half disguised letter to the obsessed and hateful self of his romanian youth;
"What is the Fall but the pursuit of a truth 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 lyrical leprosy by which he contaminates souls, subdues them, crushes or exalts them.... Only the skeptics (or idlers or aesthetes) escape, because they propose nothing, because they - humanity's true benefactors - undermine fanaticism's purposes, analyzes its frenzy". It's easy to think that Cioran wrote that passage from his very own personal experience, he himself had inexorably been that fanatical tub-thumper who was "craving for effectiveness...for terror". Earlier in the essay, Cioran points out that "when man loses his faculty of indifference, he becomes a potential murderer", had he now rediscovered that crucial faculty, with the move to Paris?
Eventually, Cioran settled in an apartment in Paris on rue de la l'Odeon number 21 in the Latin Quarter and he continued to, at intervals of about four to five years, publish his often fragmentary books of aphorisms and essays that were like private skeptical disputes with existence itself. He would muse that "a book is a suicide postponed". Economically he sustained himself through grants, admirers buying dinner, meager book sales and from the salary of his partner who was working as an english teacher. He lead a quiet life, reading and writing and walking in the Luxembourg gardens and he befriended a kindred spirit, a pessimistic writer named Samuel Beckett and they were like two different versions of decomposition. Some wisecrack said that they were similar but that Beckett - whose favorite word was "perhaps" - gave you some space to breathe. Beckett and Cioran had a related view of doubt "as a corrective to totalitarian certainty", and Cioran would for example write in "A Short history of Decay" that “No wavering mind, infected by Hamletism, was ever pernicious".
After his youth in Romania, it seemed as if Cioran could not be enthusiastic about any ideology, or religion, and it was as if he almost equated enthusiasm with fanaticism altogether, he wrote "the worst crimes are committed out of enthusiasm, a morbid state responsible for almost all public and private disasters", he was a fervent admonitory voice to the pitfalls of dogma in whatever shape or form it presented itself but he somehow traced it - dogmatism and fanaticism - all the way to enthusiasm itself. Was this somehow related to a strong notion of the destiny of all revolutions; the disappointment they all generate in all who have believed in them with some fervor ?
In one of the few interviews, Cioran states that "I have hated everything, and the only thing left to hate now is myself". And perhaps he realized, in retrospect, that in order to be the most clairvoyant man, one must first become a monster.
"Lucidity's task, to provide a correct despair".
Cioran's later writings seems interspersed with "implicit expressions of regret of his earlier convictions", but he never appears to openly and publicly renounce his former views. There's an almost electric tension to this form of avoidance and roundabout way of saying things, as if the truth (and the shame?) is almost too much to bear but in his private correspondence to friends and relatives he was more straightforward, in a 1971-letter to a friend he wrote that "when I contemplate certain of my past infatuations, I am brought up short: I don't understand. What madness!". He is almost like someone recovering from a manic psychosis; alone and baffled amidst the rubble of the mind, trying to pick up the pieces and simultaneously asking oneself "How could I have been, the one I was?".
In 1934, Mihail Sebastian, a romanian jewish intellectual, published a novel entitled "For Two Thousand years". It was written in a semi-autobiographical diary form and through the pages we follow the life of a young romanian-jewish man from his early university days in the beginning of the 1920s and on to his professional life as an architect and further on into the 1930s, and he encounters different waves of anti-semitism, from strangers and from friends, the protagonist is a witness to a slow amplification of hostile forces and he knows he can do nothing about it as it gets, as we also know from history books, increasingly worse. It amounts to some really eerie reading. Appearing in the book are also vivid portraits of people who was figuring in Bucharest's intellectual circles in the late 1920s and early 1930s, all appearing under various pseudonyms, two examples are Nae Ionescu and Emil Cioran. An interesting tension or atmosphere surfaces as the protagonist remains stoic and open-minded and is humbly trying to understand the viewpoints and worldviews of his antagonists and oppressors, sometimes in a way that almost seems masochistic.
The narrator is like a metaphysical skeptic who is considered by some to be too skeptical and by others as being too metaphysical and theological, he's a chameleon in the making and a intuitional subscriber to the nuance and a thorn in the side on the essentialists of his time. His openess might at first glance render him as vague or as a moral weathervane and maybe that's why he settles for a very concrete occupation, building things as an architect is like a counterbalancing act to his abstract and vague tendencies.
"For two-thousand years" is naturally a book about identity or the ambivalence of identity. The main character Iosif seems to be divided between "the Romanian" and "the Jewish", this is reinforced, for example, by an increasing amount of people who have a problem with Iosif calling himself a Romanian, this is most firmly exemplified in the professorial character, that is based on Nae Ionescu, when he states; " It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe that they are Romanian…. Remember that you are Jewish!… Are you Iosif Hechter, a human being from Brăila on the Danube? No, you're a Jew from Brăila on the Danube." As a third psychological magnetism in the nexus of identity ambivalence one could also mention "the European", as in being rational, empirical, cooperative, looking beyond borders and ethnicities , adhering to the values of the Enlightenment. Romania also seemed divided, or confused, in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a relatively newly formed country with recently acquired land masses from the First World War, and having ,as a result, a rapidly changing composition of population. A passage in the book describes the ambivalence as follows: "..To put it crudely, Romanian culture has remained stuck with the same intellectual problems which arose when the first railroad was built in 1860, with the problem of identifying with the west or the east, with europe or the Balkans, with the urban culture or the spirit of the countryside. The issues have always remained the same."
In another section of the book the protagonist is taking a walk with a character that is probably modelled after Cioran, a Stefan D. Parlea, and Stefan sets the terms clearly; "The pair of us can’t be friends. Not now or ever. Don’t you get the smell of the land off me?” The narrator is then detecting “something terrible in his eyes,” and thinks to himself: “Don’t you get the smell of the land off me? Yes, indeed I get it. And I envy you for it.” Stefan D. Parlea is of the land, he is a Romanian, and the narrator is a Jew, he will never be Romanian, he is exiled inside his own home country.
Fast forward some ten to fifteen years to the 1940s and Cioran finds himself in another kind of (and kinder!) exile than Mihail Sebastian's character Iosif. Cioran was in Paris, scraping by, drifting between temporary accomodations and slowly, consciously or unconsciously, removing himself from the fascist nationalistic trajectory that he was entrenched in back in Romania. He became friends with the freewheeling existentialist thinker, poet and literary critic Benjamin Fondane, another ex-Romanian intellectual of Jewish origin. Cioran wrote in a letter to his parents in 1946 that "[Fondane]proved to be more gentle and more generous than all my`Christian' friends taken together.... In the long run, all ideas are absurd and false; only the people are there, regardless of their origin or religion." When Fondane was finally denounced and arrested by nazi authorities, Cioran went with Jean Paulhan to plead for his release. At first they were surprisingly successful but Fondane refused to leave without his sister, who had also been taken into custody, and they both perished in Auschwitz.
According to Vaclav Havel, ideology offers an “immediately available home” to “wandering humankind”: “all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on a new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish”. Unfortunately, the comforts of ideology come at a cost. “One pays dearly for this low-rent home”.
Cioran was now abolishing ideology and learning to let go, one could assume, and in his exile he more and more came to resemble the mythological "wandering jew", permanently homesick, a metaphysical skeptic walking along a ghostly lit parisian street.
I entered the house: a depository of bizarre clutter and disorder.
......Along the walls and on the floor and on every surface hundreds, perhaps thousands, of objects were piled, as if the the place were a secondhand shop into which ten other secondhand shops had been hurriedly crammed, and over everything there was a film of dust... ( "The Silent Woman"- Janet Malcom)
Janet Malcolm writes in her Sylvia Plath biography "The Silent Woman" about the time when she visits Trevor Thomas's fantastically messy house : "Later, as I thought about Thomas's house (which I often did; one does not easily forget such a place), it appeared to me as a kind of monstrous allegory of truth. This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas's house, the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless -as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life". Writing biographies can be compared to some kind of housework; the writer must ask what should we keep inside and what should we throw out, and how should we arrange what is left? The risk is that you throw out the wrong things, that we still have focused on the wrong things and that we threw out the baby with the bath water. For those who write autobiographies, it becomes like exhibiting and arranging things in a thrift store shop window, and everything is shaded alternately illuminated by the "unconscious". What we come up with can at best resemble a bunch of polished fragments.
Why is this passage relevant in a text about E.M Cioran ? A form of biography writing is at work here for sure, I am sorting through the piles of fragments, quotes and the bits of information, it's like housework, (filtered through my particular brand of subjectivity). Lingering on the terms and limitations of biography is interesting when we deal with a philosopher like Cioran who (in his later works at least) models himself after the ancient skeptics, epicureans, and stoics where the personal anecdote can be instrumental for the philosphical work; to put it in Ciorans own words; "he offers himself" (his general method being direct confession) and what Self are we seeing, or rather, what am I seeing?
Cioran wrote that “It is part of my destiny to only half-fulfill…a man made of fragments”. And he added, “I believe that philosophy is no longer possible, except as fragment. As an explosion [...] Now we are all fragmentists [...]" It is a form of denial of the possibility that we can reach to the systematized core of "things", that we can arrive at plausible systems of thought, a rather irrationalisitic stance, he would write; "I'm horrified of expanding, explaining, commenting, emphasizing; I'm horrified of everything that reminds me of the philosopher and therefore of the professor. Philosophy: a scattered thinking (like we say about dung: it scatters, it stretches). I only like the collected thinking that is merged into a formula".
Florin Oprescu writes in an article named "E. M. Cioran and the self-image of the modern philosopher in the broken mirror" that "the fragment is itself an image of the spirit harassed by limits, the obsession of a failed, unfinished life, which hates coherence, continuous beauty, harmony and organic structure because of their limited, finished nature". The fragment is the means of expression of the ambivalent man or, as Andrea Rigoni noted, "the man who crashed inside". Furthermore one could assert, as Daria Lebedeva would write in a phd dissertation concerning Cioran: that "the fragment breaks the dogmatic wall of the systems and standards in philosophy and leads philosophy to the open space of nonrestrained reflection".
Perhaps we can apply some of Cioran's assessment of Nietzsche to describe himself;
"There is nothing more irritating than those works in which the rebellious ideas of a spirit that aspires to everything are arrayed, except a system. To what end should one give an appearance of coherence to those of Nietzsche […]? Nietzsche is an ensemble of attitudes; and to seek in him a will to order, a preoccupation with unity, is to diminish it”. Delving through a collection of aphorisms by E.M Cioran, like "All Gall is Divided", or sifting through the pages of his "Notebooks" one encounters precisely this "ensemble of attitudes" circulating around a core of recurring themes; suicide, religion, death, ideology, nothingness and so on. The tone is pessimistic yet weirdly entertaining, an ironic and dark sense of humour and a joyfulness of expression is slipping through the nihilistic cracks.
I come to think again of the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas's house, as an allegory for truth, for philosophy or for the writings of Cioran or of Cioran's various convictions ( maybe he didn't have that! many) and the project of arriving at some essence or final verdict seems impossible. Like Daria Lebedeva writes, "There is no one Cioran". It comes down to the question of what to throw out and what to keep inside and how to arrange what is left.
Through the large rectangular café window you can see the gray street and people, pets, sparrows and vehicles, moving about, all surrounded by foul rainy weather. Inside the cafe, Sarah and Saul are sitting and talking about a person who was prone to anti-Semitic outbursts in the cafes of Bucharest, in the books that he wrote and probably also in the daily press (if he was given that space).
- it sounds to me like you're trying to whitewash him, free him from guilt .. Sarah says
- no, not at all, I am saying that we must be able to read philosophy written by a person with a problematic biography without ourselves being 'contaminated' or overly concerned by his reprehensible opinions, especially when these opinions are not being expressed in the philosophical text itself. It's the same with Heidegger; he was also a fascist, even a more persistent one, but there are nevertheless things there to be learned from his body of work, he is too influential to be marginalized...
Outside the window, in the strong wind, someone's umbrella is turned inside out.
- what if these abhorrent views are implicit in the philosophical material ? that we ingest them unconsciously while reading and that we are slowly and imperceptibly being transformed for the worse over time ?
- don't be ridiculous , and even if that's the case there's no way to prove that either
- I wouldn't be too sure about that . Sarah says, mutely mumbling
A pale waiter is scurrying between the tables. He has the look of someone who wants to be elsewhere. Saul continues:
- When Heidegger's notebooks were published it was evident that the man was even more anti-semitic than what was previously estimated. But even a philosopher can be wrong, in fact wrongness is a part of Heidegger's "errancy" concept that states that human beings are not calculators, but conjecturers, relying on guesswork, and that being wrong is, as a result, an irreducible part of being a person.
- He was severly wrong then! Talk about going off the rails . ..but I guess moral disgust concerning the author will make readers more watchful and vigilant while reading or at least they will feel a certain kind of incredulity towards the material .. still, I can't believe how stupid he could be while at other times being so brilliant... it just doesn't add up.