“Charmed by Death and Chaos” – Edmund WHITE

New York Times, May 05, 1991

ANATHEMAS AND ADMIRATIONS By E. M. Cioran. Translated by Richard Howard. 256 pp. New York: Arcade Publishing/Little, Brown & Company. $22.95.

I hate wisdom. What drunks, politicians and the idle proffer so freely gives me an allergic reaction. Most wisdom, I’m convinced, is made up of what S. I. Hayakawa used to call “purr words,” reassuringly familiar and abstract empty vocables that go down well uttered in any order, even in reverse. Perhaps this aversion is what always made me avoid E. M. Cioran in the past, since he’s an aphorist. For me, just a glance at all those nugatory paragraphs, set off by portentous white space, is usually an accurate early warning that wisdom Scuds are about to be launched.

Nothing could be more gratifying than to discover that Mr. Cioran, a Romanian who’s lived in France since 1937, admires Buddhism of the most unconsoling variety, has contemplated suicide for decades, esteems extremists, fanatics and eccentrics of all sorts and has instituted vertigo into his daily life. Instead of accumulating wisdom, he has shed certainties. Instead of reaching out to touch someone, he has fastidiously cultivated his exemplary solitude. If he is an aphorist, he’s one who resembles Nietzsche, not Kahlil Gibran. As he says in “Anathemas and Admirations”: “However much I have frequented the mystics, deep down I have always sided with the Devil; unable to equal him in power, I have tried to be worthy of him, at least, in insolence, acrimony, arbitrariness, and caprice.”Mr. Cioran is so far from the current quest for bromides, success and togetherness that he must have shocked the American professor who asked him for a suggestion as to what he should discuss in his next year’s lectures. He hazarded: “Why not chaos and its charms?” Under the chapter heading “Exasperations,” he notes laconically, “Devouring biographies one after the next to be convinced of the futility of any undertaking, of any destiny.”The gulf between his tradition of European pessimism and American optimism comes clear in his reflections on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Instead of looking at the artistic Fitzgerald, the author of “The Great Gatsby,” or the legendary Fitzgerald, the inventor of the flapper, Mr. Cioran selects the desperate, alcoholic Fitzgerald of “The Crack-Up” and treats him to some unusual observations. When Fitzgerald complains of his sleepless nights, Mr. Cioran (himself a great insomniac) regrets the American is not sensitive to the advantages of this “enriching disaster.” When Fitzgerald contemplates his “dark night of the soul” and considers it to be a symptom of psychological collapse, Mr. Cioran asks why Fitzgerald was indifferent to the philosophical possibilities of his condition: “He struggled more as a victim than as a hero. The same is true of all those who live their drama solely in terms of psychology; unsuited to perceiving an exterior absolute to combat or to yield to, they eternally relapse into themselves in order to vegetate, ultimately, beneath the truths they have glimpsed.”Mr. Cioran occupies a position of extreme solitude in French intellectual life. Like his fellow Romanian, the playwright Eugene Ionesco, who also lives in Paris, he is fascinated by death, although Mr. Ionesco flees it in a panic while Mr. Cioran woos it with honeyed words and knowing smiles. Mr. Cioran is a contemplator of suicide who has lived to be old (“Since day after day I have lived in the company of Suicide, it would be unjust and ungrateful on my part to denigrate it”).

He is also a philosopher who despises anything systematic (“One is freer in the aphorism — triumph of a disintegrated ego”). He is a foreigner who writes an exquisite French — knotty with thought, rapid in its notation of ideas, dandified in its elisions. Richard Howard has rendered this language, which is both classical (lucid, sober) and Romantic (intimate, omnivorous), with the same suppleness he brought to that other great French stylist of our epoch, Roland Barthes.For Mr. Cioran, French is a language beset with formal constraints and refinements that he characterizes as “the combination of a straitjacket and a salon,” though elsewhere he writes: “It is just possible to imagine God speaking French. Christ, never. His words do not function in a language so ill at ease in the naive or the sublime.”In the era of magazines like People and Paris Match, he is capable of observing (of Borges, in this case): “The misfortune of being recognized has befallen him. He deserved better.” Despite being a stoic and virtually a hermit, Mr. Cioran has had on some readers a calamitous effect; not long ago a young man in France committed suicide with a Cioran volume beside him (was it the mordant “Temptation to Exist”?).Mr. Cioran’s ear for language is so finely tuned that it’s no accident he loves music. Some of his most striking apothegms record the effect of music (its essence is ineffable). I’ll restrain myself to quoting two: “Only music can create an indestructible complicity between two persons. A passion is perishable, it decays, like everything that partakes of life, whereas music is of an essence superior to life and, of course, to death.” And: “Music exists only so long as hearing it lasts, just as God exists only so long as ecstasy lasts. The supreme art and the Supreme Being have this in common, that they depend entirely on ourselves.”Although Mr. Cioran prefers aphorisms, he is also a superb literary essayist, as this book gives us two occasions to observe. One of the two important essays is on Paul Valery, the French poet, in which Mr. Cioran remarks, “His horror of philosophic jargon is so convincing, so contagious, that one shares it forever after, so that one can no longer read a serious philosopher except with suspicion or distaste, henceforth rejecting any falsely mysterious or learned term.”The other is a homage to the 19th-century reactionary political philosopher Joseph de Maistre. With hand-rubbing glee Mr. Cioran chortles and quotes Maistre declaring in an insane period: “In all the universe there can be nothing more peaceful, more circumspect, more humane by nature than the tribunal of the Inquisition.” Maistre was sent by the King of Sardinia as his Ambassador to St. Petersburg, and Mr. Cioran identifies with his status as emigre: “A thinker is enriched by all that escapes him, all that is taken from him; if he should happen to lose his country, what a windfall! Thus the exile is a thinker in miniature or a circumstantial visionary.”In his reactionary excessiveness Maistre criticized anything new and praised any authority consecrated by time, which he invariably qualified as “divine.” Wryly, Mr. Cioran says in an aside, “Applied to war, the adjective seems, at first glance, unfortunate.” With characteristic dryness, Mr. Cioran concludes, “Nothing permits us to regard goodness as the major attribute of the divinity.”Sardonic, even cynical, Mr. Cioran rivals his idol, Satan, in the elegance of his address and the undermining fluency of his thought. I suppose if we must have wisdom, it should at least be sulfurous.


I want to write only in an explosive state, in a fever or under great nervous tension, in an atmosphere of settling accounts, where invectives replace blows and slaps. It usually begins this way: a faint trembling that becomes stronger and stronger, as after an insult one has swallowed without responding. . . . Expression is relief, the indirect revenge of one who cannot endure shame and who rebels in words against his kind, against himself. . . . I have not written a single line at my normal temperature. And yet for years on end I regarded myself as the one individual exempt from flaws. Such pride did me good: it allowed me to blacken paper. I virtually ceased producing when my delirium abated and I became the victim of a pernicious modesty, deadly to that ferment from which intuitions and truths derive. . . .When one attacks a subject, however ordinary, one experiences a feeling of plenitude, accompanied by a touch of arrogance. A phenomenon stranger still: that sensation of superiority when one describes a figure one admires. In the middle of a sentence, how easily one believes oneself the center of the world! Writing and worship do not go together: like it or not, to speak of God is to regard Him from on high . Writing is the creature’s revenge, and his answer to a botched Creation. — From “Anathemas and Admirations.”Edmund White, who teaches English at Brown University, is finishing a biography of Jean Genet.

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