“Emile Cioran and the culture of death” – Tomislav SUNIC

TomSunic.com

Historical pessimism and the sense of the tragic are recurrent motives in European literature. From Heraclitus to Heidegger, from Sophocles to Schopenhauer, the exponents of the tragic view of life point out that the shortness of human existence can only be overcome by the heroic intensity of living. The philosophy of the tragic is incompatible with the Christian dogma of salvation or the optimism of some modern ideologies. Many modern political theologies and ideologies set out from the assumption that “the radiant future” is always somewhere around the corner, and that existential fear can best be subdued by the acceptance of a linear and progressive concept of history. It is interesting to observe that individuals and masses in our post-modernity increasingly avoid allusions to death and dying. Processions and wakes, which not long ago honored the postmortem communion between the dead and the living, are rapidly falling into oblivion. In a cold and super-rational society of today, someone’s death causes embarrassment, as if death should have never occurred, and as if death could be postponed by a deliberate “pursuit of happiness.” The belief that death can be outwitted through the search for the elixir of eternal youth and the “ideology of good looks”, is widespread in modern TV-oriented society. This belief has become a formula for social and political conduct.

The French-Rumanian essayist, Emile Cioran, suggests that the awareness of existential futility represents the sole weapon against theological and ideological deliriums that have been rocking Europe for centuries. Born in Rumania in 1911, Cioran very early came to terms with the old European proverb that geography means destiny. From his native region which was once roamed by Scythian and Sarmatian hordes, and in which more recently, secular vampires and political Draculas are taking turns, he inherited a typically “balkanesque” talent for survival. Scores of ancient Greeks shunned this area of Europe, and when political circumstances forced them to flee, they preferred to search for a new homeland in Sicily or Italy–or today, like Cioran, in France. “Our epoch, writes Cioran, “will be marked by the romanticism of stateless persons. Already the picture of the universe is in the making in which nobody will have civic rights.”[1] Similar to his exiled compatriots Eugene Ionesco, Stephen Lupasco, Mircea Eliade, and many others, Cioran came to realize very early that the sense of existential futility can best by cured by the belief in a cyclical concept of history, which excludes any notion of the arrival of a new messiah or the continuation of techno-economic progress.

Cioran’s political, esthetic and existential attitude towards being and time is an effort to restore the pre-Socratic thought, which Christianity, and then the heritage of rationalism and positivism, pushed into the periphery of philosophical speculation. In his essays and aphorisms, Cioran attempts to cast the foundation of a philosophy of life that, paradoxically, consists of total refutation of all living. In an age of accelerated history it appears to him senseless to speculate about human betterment or the “end of history.” “Future,” writes Cioran, “go and see it for yourselves if you really wish to. I prefer to cling to the unbelievable present and the unbelievable past. I leave to you the opportunity to face the very Unbelievable.”[2] Before man ventures into daydreams about his futuristic society, he should first immerse himself in the nothingness of his being, and finally restore life to what it is all about: a working hypothesis. On one of his lithographs, the 16th century French painter, J. Valverde, sketched a man who had skinned himself off his own anatomic skin. This awesome man, holding a knife in one hand and his freshly peeled off skin in the other, resembles Cioran, who now teaches his readers how best to shed their hide of political illusions. Man feels fear only on his skin, not on his skeleton. How would it be for a change, asks Cioran, if man could have thought of something unrelated to being? Has not everything that transpires caused stubborn headaches? “And I think about all those whom I have known,” writes Cioran, “all those who are no longer alive, long since wallowing in their coffins, for ever exempt of their flesh–and fear.”[3]

The interesting feature about Cioran is his attempt to fight existential nihilism by means of nihilism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Cioran is averse to the voguish pessimism of modern intellectuals who bemoan lost paradises, and who continue pontificating about endless economic progress. Unquestionably, the literary discourse of modernity has contributed to this mood of false pessimism, although such pessimism seems to be more induced by frustrated economic appetites, and less by what Cioran calls, “metaphysical alienation.” Contrary to J.P. Sartre’s existentialism that focuses on the rupture between being and non-being, Cioran regrets the split between the language and reality, and therefore the difficulty to fully convey the vision of existential nothingness. In a kind of alienation popularized by modern writers, Cioran detects the fashionable offshoot of “Parisianism” that elegantly masks a warmed-up version of a thwarted belief in progress. Such a critical attitude towards his contemporaries is maybe the reason why Cioran has never had eulogies heaped upon him, and why his enemies like to dub him “reactionary.” To label Cioran a philopsher of nihilism may be more appropriate in view of the fact that Cioran is a stubborn blasphemer who never tires from calling Christ, St. Paul, and all Christian clergymen, as well as their secular Freudo-Marxian successors outright liars and masters of illusion. To reduce Cioran to some preconceived intellectual and ideological category cannot do justice to his complex temperament, nor can it objectively reflect his complicated political philosophy. Each society, be it democratic or despotic, as a rule, tries to silence those who incarnate the denial of its sacrosanct political theology. For Cioran all systems must be rejected for the simple reason that they all glorify man as an ultimate creature. Only in the praise of non-being, and in the thorough denial of life, argues Ciroan, man’s existence becomes bearable. The great advantage of Cioran is, as he says, is that “I live only because it is in my power to die whenever I want; without the idea of suicide I would have killed myself long time ago.”[4] These words testify to Cioran’s alienation from the philosophy of Sisyphus, as well as his disapproval of the moral pathos of the dung-infested Job. Hardly any biblical or modern democratic character would be willing to contemplate in a similar manner the possibility of breaking away from the cycle of time. As Cioran says, the paramount sense of beatitude is achievable only when man realizes that he can at any time terminate his life; only at that moment will this mean a new “temptation to exist.” In other words, it could be said that Cioran draws his life force from the constant flow of the images of salutary death, thereby rendering irrelevant all attempts of any ethical or political commitment. Man should, for a change, argues Cioran, attempt to function as some form of saprophytic bacteria; or better yet as some amoebae from Paleozoic era. Such primeval forms of existence can endure the terror of being and time more easily. In a protoplasm, or lower species, there is more beauty then in all philosophies of life. And to reiterate this point, Cioran adds: “Oh, how I would like to be a plant, even if I would have to attend to someone’s excrement!” [+]

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