“The Philosophical Periods of Emil Cioran” – Ciprian VĂLCAN

Romanian Philosophical Culture, Globalization and Education Romanian Philosophical Studies, VI. Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Change, series IV A, Central and Eastern Europe, Volume 35. General Editor George F. McLean.  Edited by Stefan Popenici & Alin Tat.

Emil Cioran was born on April 8th, 1911 in Răşinari, near Sibiu, in a Romanian region that until 1918 was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. His father, Emilian Cioran, was an Orthodox priest, while his mother, Elvira Comaniciu, descended from the family of a notary who had earned a baronship for notable service. Cioran spent his childhood in the beautiful scenery of Răşinari. At the age of ten he started attending the classes of the “Gheorghe Lazăr”‘ highschool in Sibiu where his entire family moved in 1924. In 1926, when he was fifteen years old, the young Emil dedicated himself to his first intense literary and philosophical reading; his notebooks of the time display a series of quotations from Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Diderot, Balzac, Flaubert, Sholoviov, Tagore and Dostoïevski.

Between 1928 and 1932 he was a student of the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy in Bucharest, particularly attracted to German philosophers, among whom he assiduously embraced Simmel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Dilthey, without ignoring Kierkegaard, Bergson and Shestov. He concluded his undergraduate studies with a dissertation on Bergsonian intuitionism. From 1931 onwards he published numerous articles and essays in periodicals such as Mişcarea,Discobolul, Azi, Vremea, Gândirea, Calendarul, Floarea de foc, Acţiunea. Between 1933 and 1935 he lived in Berlin on a Humboldt Foundation scholarship and in 1936 became a philosophy teacher at the “Andrei Şaguna” highschool in Braşov.

In 1937 he went to Paris on a scholarship of the French Institute in Bucharest, which was extended until 1944. After 1945, he returned to Romania for only short periods of time, choosing to live in exile. His Parisian existence was that of a marginal character who lived precariously on uncertain income. At the beginning, he lived in cheap hotels in the Latin Quarter and, after 1960, eventually settled in the famous attic at 21, rue de l’Odéon, where he was to remain until his death, in 1995.

1934 witnessed his debut within a volume; his first book, Pe culmile disperării was followed by other five written in Romanian and ten more published in French: Cartea amăgirilor (The Book of Illusions), Bucharest, 1936; Schimbarea la faţă a României, Bucharest, 1936; Lacrimi şi sfinţi, Bucharest, 1937; Amurgul gândurilor (The Crepuscule of Reason) , Sibiu, 1940; Îndreptar pătimaş (Passionate Guide), Bucharest, 1991; Précis de decomposition (Treaty of Decomposition), Paris, 1949; Syllogismes de l’amertume (Syllogisms of Sadness), Paris, 1952; La tentation d’exister(The Temptation to Exist), Paris, 1956; Histoire et utopie (History and Utopia), Paris, 1960; La chute dans le temps (The Fall in Time), Paris, 1964; Le mauvais Démiurge (The Evil Demiurge), Paris, 1969; De l’inconvénient d’être né, Paris (The Shortcomings of Being Born), 1973; Ecartèlement (Excruciation), Paris, 1979; Exercices d’admiration (Excercises in Admiration), Paris, 1986; Aveux et anathèmes (Confessions and Anathemas), Paris, 1987. Mon Pays/ Ţara mea (My Country), Bucharest, 1996; Cahiers (Notebooks), Paris, 1997 ; Cahier de Talamanca (The Talamanca Notebook), Paris, 2000 were published posthumously.


The differences between Cioran’s Romanian and French works have often been overlooked by his commentators, who have proved much too attached to the idea of unity of his thought, considering that the writer’s obsessions and interests remained unchanged throughout. Thus, differences were allegedly noticeable only on a stylistic level, where the often careless and exaggeratedly lyrical writing of the early texts were replaced by the sober and elegant formulations belonging to one of the most important masters of verbal use in 20th century French prose. Cioran’s own confessions might have contributed to shaping this inaccurate image, for both in his writings and in interviews he insisted upon the organic nucleus of his inspiration to the disadvantage of the shifts of perspective which are easy to detect in his work. He would stubbornly maintain that his entire vision of the world was practically acquired at the age of 20, without undergoing any subsequent important transformations.

The situation is, in fact, completely different. Cioran’s work represents the perfect expression of a contradictory spirit, who approaches a series of quasi-obsessive themes from constantly changing perspectives. While the interests of Cioran, the thinker, remain unaltered, the way in which they relate to the central motifs of his reflection vary considerably, making it impossible to establish a continuity between his early and his mature work. It seems easier to state that Cioran’s French work is an almost systematic and willful denial of all the beliefs and spiritual formulae in his Romanian work, a merciless demolition of the idols built in youthful frenzy. Cioran appears to be fighting against himself. The famous phrase “to think against yourself” provides the title of a superb essay to be found in La tentation d’exister,later borrowed by Susan Sontag[i] in order to characterize the essayist’s philosophical manner. Consequently, it can be understood as a continuous and furious battle against his juvenile self, still insufficiently experienced to install its sceptical shell and reject all the siren-voices of the illusion generated by living in the world.

The young Cioran received Nietzsche’s texts with enthusiasm, using them to legitimise his innate need to challenge and undermine certainty. He distances himself quite rapidly from the models offered by classical philosophy – the honourable quality of the system and of a certain type of discourse considered to be the only true one – in order to take on a meditation on being. Cioran adheres to the kind of philosophy encountered in Nietzsche’s work, not only because it corresponds to the way in which he himself deciphers the structure of the world, but also because it contains a considerable potential of rebellion against traditional metaphysical theses.

Far from being a superficial surface masking the hegemony of other philosophical models, Nietzsche’s influence is present on all levels of Cioran’s early work. It is the constant organizing element in the agitated dynamics of his thinking, serving as a reference point and presiding over his vision of the world. This influence fades into practical nothingness in Cioran’s last volumes. His distancing himself from Nietzschean thinking is the consequence of a real Kehre which marks the transition from the thinker’s Romanian stage to the French stage. In this later period, beyond rather apparent incongruities and a certain thematic similarity, his thinking registers a profound transformation, adopting positions in many respects to those strictly antithetical of his youth.

The ontological vision embraced by the young Cioran reflects his choleric temperament and his strong inclination towards a tragic heroism which values drive, abnegation, courage and power more than the refined sophistic games of the intellect or its subtle conceptual distinctions. This is precisely the reason why his perspective is not dominated by reflection on the countless variations that interfere in the relationship between existence and essence. It is not a meditation on pure being or on the way in which its various features can be determined by means of categories. Rather, it is entirely governed by the author’s interest in capturing the mystery of life. Life with a capital letter, Life as an ontological principle, is Cioran-the-thinker’s main preoccupation: he strongly believes that the central stake of his existence is its very consonance with the overflowing power of life, with its irrational and over-individual nature.

To Cioran, the background of existence is made up of dark transformations, chaotic and contradictory movements, incessant competition between creation and destruction, between imposing certain forms and necessarily surpassing them. The world is not harmonious, symmetrical, teleologically controllable; it is mastered by the merciless exigency of evolution and infinite transformation, by the cruelty of a process that develops fatally, with no purpose or reason: “The true dialectics of life is a demonic and agonic one, before which life appears as winding in an eternal night lit by phosphorescences meant to increase the mystery”[ii]. Cioran’s view on the anarchic tumult of life and its delirious and barbarous rhythm echoes the numerous Nietzschean texts which talk about the abyss of existence, about the terrifying magma that boils and stirs behind the temporary creations of the intellect so as to make daily life possible.

In Cioran’s case, this dramatic perspective upon the never-ending interplay of forces at the basis of existence instantiates a vision animated by tragic heroism, which opposes both the optimistic theories regarding the fate of the Universe and the often apocalyptical formulations of the pessimists. By rejecting passivity, monotony, resignation, Cioran tries to put forward a daring confrontation between life’s trials and the exalted reception of their consequences. If in Nietzsche’s case the proclamation of amor fati is the consequence of his paradoxical idea of the eternal return and of the importance he attributes to the will to power, Cioran preserves the idea of a possible synthesis between optimism and pessimism, supposedly capable of surpassing them both.

The solution Cioran envisages for a fair integration in the cosmic rhythms resides in the intensification of living, the divinisation of life’s paradoxical cannibalism, the acceptance of the horrors and of the dynamic explosions in where the vital flux consists: “My brothers, may your life be so intense that you should die and crumble against it. May you die of life! May you wreck your life! May you scream from the howls of the life inside you, may you sing in final songs the last whirls of your life!”[iii]. This vital surplus, this enthusiastic entrance into the vortex of existence is the only way in which people can lead a dignified life. Grasping meaninglessness is not an excuse for despair, but the privileged means by which the individual grows stronger and decides to face the accumulation of events offered by his destiny with his whole being, without remorse or reserve. Since he is trapped inside the monstrous spectacle of the world, like a mere actor in the irrational cosmic drama, he simply enjoys living.

Feeling the absence of a philosophy ready to affirm the importance of life, the lack of that philosophy of Yes already mentioned by Nietzsche, Cioran – who uses a rhetoric close enough to the lyricism of Thus Spake Zarathustra – never ceases to proclaim the need for people to adore life, to become idolaters of living: “A thousand repetitions will be needed to state that Life alone, pure life, the pure act of living can be loved, that we hang onto nothingness by the thread of our consciousness”[iv]. From this perspective, the only capital sin is the depreciation of life, the blockage of its unconscious energy by means of rational mechanisms which question its meaning and tend to challenge its absolute value as a goal in itself: “Guilty consciousness is the result of willing or unwilling attacks on life. All the times that were not moments of ecstasy before life have added up to the infinite guilt of consciousness”[v].

The only way to capture the mystery of life is an exclusive orientation towards the procession of appearances, an attempt at exhausting their charm and tasting their concreteness and unending diversity by renouncing whatever contradicts the natural tendencies of individuals to fully assume their vital potential. The attempt to enter a deeper level of reality, to discover truths that escape the senses, in a horizon to which only reason – by means of its specific power to pierce through the veil of appearances – has access, these are all signs of mistrust in the transfigurative power of life, in its ability always to stage thrilling shows where the impenetrable destiny of humanity is at stake at every given moment. To Cioran, these attempts are all in vain: they can only spread a diffuse nihilism, an unexplainable disgust for living which refuses deciphering and forever keeps its mask, preserving its freshness and fascination: “There is no other world behind ours; nothingness hides nothing. Whenever you may dig for treasures, the digging is in vain: the gold is scattered in the spirit, yet the spirit is far from golden. Defame life by useless archaeologies? There are no traces. Who would have left them? Nothingness does not stain. What steps could have gone under the earth, when there is no under ?[vi]“.

The implicit gnosiology to be discovered in Cioran’s texts corresponds to his vision of a universe made up of an anarchic agglomeration of forces and is clearly inspired by Nietzsche. It takes over all the key elements of the German philosopher’s conception of knowledge and truth. To Cioran, knowledge is a form of the predator instinct which governs the human being, a means by which it tries to expand its domination of the world, without displaying any special virtue or inclination apart from the will to dominate: “The instincts of the predator beast reveal themselves in knowledge. You want to master everything, to make it yours – and if it is not yours, you want to smash it to pieces. How could anything escape you, when your immense thirst pierces the ceiling and your pride arches rainbows over an abyss of ideas?!”[vii].

In order to populate the universe with enough conceptual beings to mask the wilderness of the abyss that underlies the entire human existence, in order to hide the meaninglessness that mysteriously presides over the cannibalistic metabolism of life, one needs steadily to hang onto illusions, to project a screen of beliefs strong enough to allow the comfortable survival of the individuals without permitting them to glimpse the background drama, the furious spectacle of growing and shrinking, of being born and irrationally rushing towards destruction: “People believe in something in order to forget what they are. Burying themselves under ideals and cuddling in idols, they kill time with all sorts of beliefs. Nothing would hurt them more terribly than to wake up on top of the heap of pleasant deception, faced with pure existence”[viii].

Like Nietzsche, Cioran notices the unitary nature of the productions of the intellect. They act as filters which prevent the perception of plural reality and the incessant evolution of all things, building the edifice of a stable world, homogeneous and identical with itself. If the world is in fact an infernal succession of sensations, a terrible carousel of always obsolete forms, a theatre of uniqueness and of the unrepeatable, our gnosiological apparatus constantly works on the skilful deformation of these aspects of existence. It suggests their replacement with a comfortable image, in which constancy, continuity, measurability, predictability are the main pillars that make people confidently believe that they are walking on safe ground[ix].

The ossification of reality comes about particularly due to the language filter which tries to constrain possibly similar situations within the oppressive frame of identity. Thus, the linguistic sieve privileges levelling and standardisation to the disadvantage of a discontinuous vision that would precisely observe difference and the incongruities rendered perceptible by means of the senses. The mission of concepts is to pacify the world, to make it into a province of the self where there is no room for unpredictability or accident, where everything abides by the laws of reason, following their immutable order and refusing the interference of affectivity or sensitivity.

All these observations lead Cioran towards adopting the theory of truth proposed by Nietzsche. First, he notices that the truths people invoke represent nothing but a systematic effort to falsify reality and idolize a set of useful errors that make life possible, so that “living equals a specialization in error”[x]. This type of truth organizes the whole process of individual accommodation to reality, eliminating with sombre voluptuousness the fictions that are struggling to disguise its veritable appearance. It is the type of truth which parallels the ‘truth-probity’ from Nietzschean fragments. Yet, if in the German philosopher’s case the main impulse behind this tendency is a terrible necessity to know the ultimate truth, “the real truth”, if its motive power is the passion for knowledge, things are different with Cioran.

For this type of investigation, the determining element is the diminished vitality that finds its expression within, endangering the survival of individuals because of its shortage of energy, a dangerous malady that menaces being: “Truth – like any minus of illusion – only appears in a compromised vitality. Unable to further nourish the charm of errors in which our life indulges, instincts fill the void with the disaster of lucidity. One starts seeing things for what they are and then one can no longer live. Without errors, life is a deserted boulevard on which one walks like a peripathetician of sadness”[xi].

Cioran lays more emphasis than Nietzsche upon the dangers such knowledge implies with regard to life, taking into account the destruction of illusions it entails. He tends to see it as a capital, inexpiable sin against nature that threatens to tear the individual apart from the irrational stream of living and project him into a delirious and fatal obsession with truth searching. This obsession ceaselessly opposes consciousness to natural and unconscious development, thus enacting, according to Klage, an irreducible adversity between spirit and life: “Since any knowledge equals loss – of being, of existence – any kind of knowledge brings along weariness, disgust towards being and a certain detachment. The act of knowing only increases our distance from the world and embitters our human condition”[xii].

Imposing a devastating lucidity leads to questioning the entire fictional architecture of the world. It involves the danger of dissolution, of giving in to the demented carousel of uncertainties, challenges and hiatuses of being and thus making it possible for life to expand carelessly, to develop in the shadow of a suite of imaginary constructs to a purely utilitarian end. In order to allow the consolidation of living, to provide it with the proper circumstances in which to manifest itself, a spontaneous acceptance of a set of truths and principles is necessary. It should act without the always harmful mediation of reflexivity, which inhibits the vital impulse and overturns the most solid certitudes: “An individual or an epoch must breathe unconsciously within the unconditional nature of a principle in order to recognize it. Knowing overthrows any shade of certainty. As an extreme phenomenon of reason, consciousness is a source of doubts that can only be defeated in the dusk of the awakened spirit”[xiii].

This is, however, only one of the levels of Cioran’s thinking, which does not exhaust the sphere of his reflections upon truth. Like Nietzsche, he tries to capture the ambiguous nature of truth, the eternal competition between revelation and concealment, the frantic proliferation of masks and perspectives, heading towards the proclamation of a type of truth that comes close to the truth-duplicity from Nietzschean texts. Cioran’s effort is particularly directed towards keeping the creative dynamism of life unaltered, towards a subtle approach to its contradictory aspects, so that there should be no endangering of life by means of eliminating the shield of fiction necessary to the expansion of the vital flux. Simultaneously, there should neither appear a challenge of the background fluidity of the world, of its plurality and evolution. The heroic dimension of living in the world occupies a central place in Cioran’s early texts, also reflected in his understanding of knowledge and truth. It prohibits both passive conformism in the reception of a tame version of the universe and the ultimate triumph and dangerous exaltation, the suicidal instinct placed in the service of destroying all the errors one needs in order to survive.

Warning against the perils of knowledge and the ill-fated part it may play due to its life-endangering nature, the young philosopher does not settle for an obedient acceptance of truth-utility. He vehemently criticises the idea of certainty that lies behind it and proclaims his revolt, especially because of the mediocre standard it seems to impose and the less dramatic vision it underscores. The artificial fabrication of a meaning solely serves the purpose of a cowardly search for stability and certainty, acting as an ignoble lie. It denies precisely the virility of confrontation with the unleashed cavalcade of appearances and tends to devalue the agonic emotion, the intensity impossible to capture in an ephemerous, spontaneous form[xiv].

The battle against certainties is fought in the name of the creative effervescence of nature, of the paradoxical spectacle offered by the explosive unpredictability of life. Accepting an ultimate foundation, introducing indubitable nuclei of meaning, strictly and voluntarily limiting the entire space of existence equals restricting the potential of surprising productions, offering forms and the idea of containment the ultimate triumph upon the furious matter of evolution, upon the demonic side of its unstructurable contents. It equals giving in to the illusion of control over the deep irrationality of the world: “Let us not build our lives upon certainties. Let us not build it so, since we do not have these certainties and we are not cowardly enough to invent stable and final ones. Where in our past would we find certainties, solid grounds to balance or support us? Has our heroism not started the moment we began to realize that life can only lead to death and still did not give up on affirming it? We do not need certainties since we know that they can only be found in suffering, sadness and death – too intense and too lasting to be less than absolute”[xv].

Cioran’s solution is also borrowed from Nietzschean texts, and it consists of imposing a vision of the world in which appearances reunite all opposites and make the logics of identity explode. It contains both truth and lie, reality and fiction; evolution changes into an infinite interplay of interpretations, into a continuous sliding of masks that can only lead towards other masks. Truth, in such a context, is a frantic overlapping of perspectives, a ceaseless challenge, a chain of perplexity and revelation, all subjected to the overflowing dynamics of life, to its uncontrollable pulse: “Ambivalence and equivoque are part of the ultimate realities. Being on the side of the truth against itself is not a paradoxical formulation, since anybody who understands truth’s risks and revelations cannot but love and hate it. Whoever believes in truth is naïve; whoever does not, is stupid. The only straight way is on the edge of a knife”[xvi].

Devoted – despite his taste for paradoxes – to the Nietzschean vision of the forces that make the whole machinery of the world go round, charmed by this dynamic image extremely suitable to his temper, Cioran also borrowed other key elements from the German philosopher’s thought. In his early writings he proves to be an almost Orthodox Nietzschean who put into practice his master’s theses by adapting them to his own style. His thinking is entirely dominated by typically Nietzschean motifs and solutions which he takes up almost organically, finding them suitable to express his own way of relating to existence.

Although Cioran’s writing is strongly impregnated by the spirit of Nietzsche’s philosophy, although even the tonality of the texts is seriously influenced by a certain rhetoric characteristic for Zarathustra’s creator, Cioran is only interested in those Nietzschean reflections which answer certain issues he feels the need to almost spontaneously address, thus surpassing any bookish mediation. He uses only those ideological nuclei which allow him to express himself better and parallel his dominant affective tonality.

It is in this manner that his numerous confessions regarding the vital sources of his philosophy and the organic inspiration of his thoughts should be understood. There is no denial of any influence from another thinker and no claim to spontaneous elaboration – independent of written sources. Cioran emphasizes his closeness to the model as being strictly determined by his spiritual metabolism, somewhat following the direction indicated by a fleeting note of Valéry’s: “Rien de plus original, rien de plus soi que de se nourrir des autres. Mais il faut les digérer. Le lion est fait de mouton assimilé (There is nothing more original, more personal than feeding oneself on the others. Yet, digestion is needed. The lion is made up of assimilated lamb)”.[xvii]

Along with a series of motifs belonging to Spengler, Simmel, Schopenhauer and Weininger, the stream of Nietzschean thought represents one of the pillars which gradually allowed the configuration of Cioran’s original thinking, providing it with the necessary matter for its particular philosophical style, with its recurrent themes and its specific writings. In the context of the young Cioran’s predominant interest for German philosophy and Northern thinking in general (e.g., for Kierkegaard) which he considered much closer to barbaric transfiguration, to the authentic sources of life, Nietzsche plays the father figure, the idol whose positions are adopted with much enthusiasm and very little critical spirit.


The French period brings along a different set of privileged readings and intellectual sources. German influences start to wither, being replaced by massive appeal to the great books of the humanist and sceptical European tradition, as well as to a series of Gnostic and Buddhist texts. French authors become almost obligatory reference, providing the thinker with an arsenal of arguments and ideas that contribute to the crystallization of his new image of himself. It is the image of the doomed, disillusioned character, whose flesh is wounded by an insurmountable evil which makes him immune to all the fantasies and hallucinations of an exalted humanity in perpetual quest for ideals.

The new Cioran breaks away from his former masters, the main figure whom he repudiates along the way being Nietzsche himself – the dangerous prophet, a true prince of the exalted natures, a histrionic senior of delirious times. In the writer’s first book to be published in French, Traité de decomposition (Treaty of Decomposition) , one can still find enough fragments placed under the easily noticeable influence of the German thinker – especially with regard to issues connected to knowledge and truth. Later on Nietzsche’s presence fades, leaving the fore-ground open to a series of themes which will contribute to shaping Cioran’s portrait as a radical sceptic, a perpetual lover of doubt.

The convulsive exaltation of living, the creation, the effort of his early work are replaced by the disillusioned outlook of one who arrives to consider himself the sceptic of the Occident, the damned master of doubt, the exorcist of all certainty and conviction. Cioran’s French writings constitute a true Summa sceptica, a transcript with phenomenological accents of the abysmal mechanisms of doubt, of the disease that attacks the spirit, detaching it from any vital stake and making it impossible to choose out of sheer indecision[xviii]. Cioran insists upon the voluptuousness the intellect feels while trapped in the whirl of unmasking illusions, of demystifying drunkenness of the senses. He describes the pride of those who feel able to transcend all human boundaries, letting themselves be consumed by their inquisitorial mania, aiming at annihilating all fiction and projecting a merciless image of the entire architecture of the universe, made out of tenebrous nudity and left without the protective shield of idealization or of teleological projections.

However, apart from designing this veritable orgy of the intelligence, the writer inventories the disappointing consequences of such an outburst of the implacable machinery of the spirit. He ruthlessly analyses the results of the “uncharming” of the world he imposes, herein including the progressive elimination of all belief, the undermining of all arguments to the benefit of life, the hegemony of a generalised indifferentism, the spread of boredom and anguish, the neutralization of affection, the assuming of sterility, the triumph of an aseptic feeling towards existence that encourages the headlong rush towards catastrophe, the quest for a breakaway from the curse of the almighty consciousness: “I know a crazy old woman who spends her days and nights on the watch, expecting her house to fall apart at any time. Walking to and fro in her room, listening to small noises, she is extremely irritated that the event is running late. On a larger scale, the old woman’s behaviour belongs to us all. We live hoping for a downfall, even when we are thinking of something else”[xix].

The pre-eminence of this vision determines Cioran to start drawing a relentless image of the world, in which naivety, illusion, utopia have no place whatsoever. Sarcasm and cynical notes are the preferred means used to demonstrate the insanity of all hope or belief in the blessings of reason. The writer ridicules even the most moderate form of optimism, deconstructing with malicious ingeniousness all the arguments held by the partisans of progress and disqualifying any claim at amelioration of the destiny of humanity. It seems extremely obvious to Cioran that a lucid outlook on the universe does not allow for the slightest hope. Creation is the work of an evil divinity, of a ‘tarred god’[xx] who has corrupted the roots of existence from the very beginning, launching a generalized process of vitiation and destruction, generating the movement and chaos of change, blowing up the harmony of the initial whole. Man is the victim of this initial error. He is a composite being, naturally oriented towards evil, cohabitating with monstrosity and horror, capable of well-doing only inattentively or by mistake.

The nostalgia for the unborn, for the state preceding creation, for the paradisiacal, preverbal and preconscious initial condition, is extremely present in Cioran’s French work, marking another significant difference from his Romanian volumes. The young Cioran exalts manifestation, and the thrill of creation; he encourages the most terribly selfish exaggerations, eulogizing individuality and its heroic fragility, trying to push his sleepy, passive people forward into the swirls of history – which he considers to be the only suitable scene for the affirmation of nations, the only court that can judge them, bringing their salvation or expiation.

In contrast, the mature Cioran is adept at erasing all traces, renouncing the illusion of the self, extinguishing all passions and suppressing all projects. He warns against the danger of succumbing to the carousel of appearances. For this reason, history appears to him as a territory of evil, as a necessarily harmful episode which induces a fatal involution, as a brutal force which subjects everything to the implacable corrosion of time, thus quickening the pace at which the end approaches. Consequently, the theme of destiny becomes omnipresent in the French volumes, continuing the dialogue with Spengler’s thinking that Cioran had started in his youth in an original manner.

The first book published in France, Traité de décomposition contains an essay, “The faces of decadence” which is still extremely strongly influenced by the way in which Spengler describes a culture on the verge of decline. Cioran’s phenomenology of decadence, present in this text, starts from the German philosopher’s observations: by contrast with the unconscious individual of climactic cultural eras (“the individual is not aware of his being alive, he just lives”[xxi]), the declined individual establishes the “reign of awareness”[xxii]. The myths of the creative periods are replaced by concepts; life changes from a means to an end in itself.

Physiological degradation imposes the abandonment of worn out instincts and the harmful hegemony of reason, which inhibits the pulsating spontaneity of emotions (“Decadence is nothing but instinct turned impure under the influence of consciousness”[xxiii]). Religious effervescence is replaced by an incapability of believing that leads to the downfall of all divinity; man chooses to kill his gods in order to be free, at the cost of his creativity: “since man is only free – and sterile – while the gods are dying; just as he is only enslaved – and creative – when, tyrannically, the gods prosper”[xxiv].

The difference from Spengler manifests itself in the way in which the two interpret the significance of decline. The German philosopher sees in civilization the formula adopted by a culture that has reached its end, without this end questioning the survival of the entire humanity and without its meaning a general crepuscule, a denial of the possibility for other cultures to emerge, a universal decline. Cioran seems to prefer a vision that contradicts the cyclic perspective subject to the Spenglerian morphology of culture, seeing in the whole symptomatology of decadence either a preparation for the extinction of the human race[xxv], or a proof of its permanent decline[xxvi]. The circularity of the model imagined by the German philosopher is replaced by headlong linearity towards catastrophe, either implying the final destruction of humankind, or involving its persistence in a post-historical condition, by inevitably accepting regress, the perpetuation of a race of “subhuman”, “crooks of the apocalypse”[xxvii].

Cioran seems to return to a unitary vision of history by denying a discontinuity which he had previously defended in the name of Spengler and by renouncing the structural homologies the latter had suggested as means of studying major cultures. Appropriating his diagnosis of decline, Cioran expands it to an universal scale. He takes it out of the precise context of formulation in order to describe the final stage of a culture and transforms it into an argument for his own disillusioned vision of the world, for his apocalyptical pessimism: “we are the great decrepits: burdened by ancient dreams, forever incapable of utopia, we are technicians of exhaustion, grave diggers of the future, terrified by the avatars of old Adam. The Tree of Life will never see a new spring: its wood is dry, they will make coffins out of it – for our bones, for our dreams and sufferings”[xxviii].

This vision was to persist throughout Cioran’s French work, appearing in a series of essays such as “After History”[xxix]or the “Urgency of Catastrophe”[xxx], marking a significant change from his early Spenglerian conception of strict obedience. Cioran thus explicitly repudiates the cyclic understanding of history in a fragment reminding of Heraclitus’ vision of the fire that will envelop the entire universe at the end of every cosmic period. He considers the idea unbearable because of the repeatability of catastrophe, infinite circularity of disaster: “Less daring and less exigent, we settle for one ending because we lack the power that would allow us to imagine and bear more. It is true that we admit a plurality of civilizations – just as many worlds that are born and perish: but who among us would consent to the entire history to always starting over? With every event we take one step further towards the unique outcome, according to a rhythm of progress whose scheme we adopt, implicitly refusing its fiddlesticks. We do advance, we even rush towards certain disaster, not towards wonderful fulfillment”[xxxi].

Such a change of perspective also triggers a radical shift in valuing history, establishing a new point of view with regard to the relationship between major cultures, obsessed with doing and self-affirmation, and a-historical, a-temporal cultures which refuse to enter the game of evolution. In his Romanian work, Cioran never ceases to blame and deplore the situation of the cultures that lack a destiny, those minor cultures which are only interested in the values of survival, have no metaphysical ambition or desire to transform the world, remain permanently anonymous, eulogizing the force of major cultures to make their mark on the development of history, to put everything down to the intensity of emotion, to search for glory at the cost of ineluctable decline.

The French books put forward the very opposite vision. A-temporal cultures possess a higher wisdom that allows them to keep their distance from the inevitable combustion which devours the actors of universal history. Decline, the precipitation of the end, is the result of greed in the evolution of major cultures: “What is ruining us, what has already ruined us, is the craving for destiny, whatever it may be”[xxxii]. History is not the salvation of peoples by means of inscribing their final place in the memory of Humanity; it is not their felicitous escape from anonymity. It represents a death trap, the acceptance of a devastating disease that will bring about the end, the sacrifice of deep essence to the advantage of a dangerous suite of simulacra, an agglomeration of facts and gestures that mark the only important stake – that of living according to one’s own interiority:

There certainly is no redemption in history. It is by no means our fundamental dimension: it is nothing but the apotheosis of the appearances. Could it be possible that, once our journey through the world has ended, we might retrieve our own essence? Will a completely shallow being, the post-historic man, be able to find in himself the a-temporal dimension, everything that history has stifled in us?[xxxiii]

Major cultures do not offer a model: their metabolism is not to be imitated, their endemic aggressiveness is not to be followed, as the young Cioran used to think. On the contrary, their itinerary is to be avoided, since they cannot offer any solutions, but only push the race towards disaster. The mature Cioran deplores the conspiracy of “advanced” peoples against the ones “left behind by history”[xxxiv] and the devious scheming the latter are not able to face, succumbing to vices they seemed protected from, being pushed in the swirl of history against their will, and thus meant for inevitable decline”[xxxv].

Having been a fervent propagandist of modernization, having eulogized the power of major cultures to change the world and their indefatigable activism, Cioran comes to regret the breakaway from the mild animalism of the natural state, which, in his youth, he would have called ‘the passage from biology to history’: “Lousy and serene, we should have settled for the company of animals, to rot together with them for millennia to come, to breathe the odor of the stables rather than that of the laboratories, to die of our diseases, not of our remedies […] To the duty and obsession of absence we have substituted events; yet, any event touches and erodes us, since it only emerges on account of our balance and durability”[xxxvi].

The apocalyptic pessimism of Cioran’s thinking results not only in a somber vision of history and of the whole structure of the world in which the pre-eminence of evil is a metaphysical fact, but also in a vitriolic description of human nature, seemingly inspired by Goya’s or Hogarth’s most crushing engravings. This is Cioran’s moralistic dimension, expressed in the most surprising of ways, forcing the absurd, the parodic or the macabre, counting on the rhetoric effect of paradoxical and sophistic formulation, shaping a whole catalogue of human vice – laughable or hideous, monstrous or merely grotesque. Nevertheless, Cioran differs from the French moralists of the 17th and 18th centuries, who used the conciseness of aphorism in order to project an objective image on humanity, following a pedagogical aim by means of the merciless unmasking of individual meanness and emotional handicap and thus setting out to contribute to moral recuperation.

Cioran offers the hallucinating spectacle of a museum of horrors on which the stamp of his subjectivity is permanently present. According to George Bălan, the French classics of the aphorism count on a series of examples that can be almost universally applied and accentuate the general quality of their thinking, trying to determine a spontaneous identification of the readers with the situations described. Meanwhile, Cioran prefers the unusual, eccentric and even shocking psychological situations in which individuals can hardly recognize themselves, since they are so far out of the ordinary, common experience[xxxvii]. Moreover, he has no illusions as to the possible effect of his writings, he sets himself no moral aim; by settling for inventorying in detail the misery of humanity, he empirically illustrates his demonstration of the hegemony of evil, of its easy and natural triumph.

In such a context, we witness the attentive deconstruction of all real resorts of individual behaviour. We take part in the systematic elimination of noble or disinterested motivations and in the unveiling of the deep reasons that determine them as they are – often ignoble and hilarious, born out of resentment[xxxviii], cowardice, envy, vanity, desire for glory[xxxix]and will to power[xl]. The world described by Cioran is one of a visceral inferno, of irrational passions that subject the spirit, leading to the slaughtering of the enemy and to the setting up of the most hideous schemings to the purpose of obtaining honors and supremacy. It is a world in which the only functional strategies are cajoling and hypocrisy, resentment and imposture. They leave no place for sincerity, abnegation, friendship, heroism or admiration which have become simple words without a meaning, instruments perfidiously used to disguise the only real impulses – almighty and low.

Illustrative for his demystifying position is his analysis of love. The young Cioran is searching for an explanation of an essential mystery when he tries to discover the fundamental meaning of love and its fatal mechanics by getting involved with enormous passion in solving this enigma and believing in the importance of his action. Having reached maturity, he regards ironically and quite cynically a topic which had previously stirred his enthusiasm. The few aphorisms dedicated to this topic are relevant of his disillusioned view, of the acid skepticism with which he scrutinizes all the reasons currently invoked as a justification for individual exaltation, for the necessity of an ideal, of the transfiguration of an often risible reality.

The young Cioran’s vision is often dominated by his obsession with life, with unstoppable energy and overwhelming fulfillment, with the quest for ecstatic experience, be it in mystical rapture or as a consequence of the orgasmic agony of the bodies. The other Cioran does not seem able to distance himself for a moment from the contemplation of the skeleton, of the rotting flesh, of the organic revelation of the futility of all things. Devoted to such a view, he sarcastically captures the bodily details which are deliberately overlooked by the partisans of ideal love. He particularly insists upon the grotesque ceremonial of sexuality, upon the profound animal character that governs the dynamics of apparently higher feelings, noticing the transformations brought about by ferocious desire: “The flesh is incompatible with forgiveness: orgasm would change a saint into a wolf”[xli]. “One declares war on the glands, but bows before the odors of a common whore … Pride is powerless when confronted with the ceremonial of smells, of zoological incensing”[xlii].

In his Romanian writings, sexuality – without which love is impossible to imagine – forms the pretext for an extreme experience, an opportunity to transcend limits and to reach emotional paroxysm, a privileged means to celebrate life by undermining reason and minimizing its certainties, an opening towards the mystery of ecstasy, celebrating the abyss of corporeality[xliii]. In the French texts, sexuality appears as a marker of man’s corrupt nature – a ridiculous gesticulation, a hideous gymnastics of the bodies. Sexuality is assimilated in the terms of a tradition famous for the severity of its formulations that aim at stirring disgust. This tradition starts with the Gnostics and goes on to Saint Augustine and Luther, favouring the perception of sexuality either as a grunting or with a moment of “drooling”[xliv].

In young Cioran’s view, man must assume his carnality and use it as an indispensable means of living the magic of vitality, of increasing the powers of its spirit and contributing to the deepening of his heroic attitude. Man must face his inevitably tragic existence by means of intensifying the undergone sensations and experiences. Yet, to the Cioran of the French writings, the body is just one of the motors of illusion, just another source of proliferating appearances, just another enemy of the merciless scrutiny of reality. True lucidity demands overlooking the body, eliminating its disturbing effect, erasing this source of phantasms.

Due to the radical nature of his thinking and to the boycott he imposed on the traditional instruments of philosophy, Cioran’s work has raised numerous problems for his commentators, intriguing them by its fragmented character and by the extraordinary stylistic quality of the writing, and preventing the easy labeling of his thinking. Part of the exegetes have considered that his work must be included in the sphere of literature[xlv], while others have argued in favour of the philosophical nature of his texts, regarding him as a follower in the tradition of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein[xlvi].

Beyond this controversy, they all nevertheless emphasized the value of his writings, proclaiming him either “a La Rochefoucauld of the 20th century”[xlvii], or the greatest writer of aphorisms since Nietzsche[xlviii], or the most important French prose writer[xlix]. Maybe the most suggestive attempt at characterizing Cioran is that of Peter Sloterdijk, who writes: “Il est, après Kierkegaard, l’unique penseur de haut niveau à avoir rendu irrévocable la compréhension du fait que nul nu peut désespérer selon des methodes sûres[l] (After Kierkegaard, he is the only high level writer who has established irrevocably that nobody can despair according to certain methods”).


Amer (Henri), “Cioran le docteur en décadences” in NRF, no. 92, 1960, p. 297-307

Balan (George), Emil Cioran, Lyon, Editions Josette, 1992

Bollon (Patrice), Cioran l’hérétique, Paris, Gallimard, 1997

Cahn (Zilla Gabrielle), Suicide in French Thought from Montesquieu to Cioran, New York-Washington D. C.-Paris, P. Lang, 1998

Ciocârlie (Livius), Caietele lui Cioran, Craiova, Scrisul Românesc, 1999

Compagnon (Antoine), “Éloge des sirènes” in Critique, no. 396, mai 1980, p. 457-473

Dodille (Norbert), Liiceanu (Gabriel) (éds), Lectures de Cioran, Paris-Montréal, L’Harmattan, 1997

Dollé (Marie), L’imaginaire des langues, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001

Dupont (Jacques), “Cioran, le vide, l’ortie et le saxophone” in Territoire de l’imaginaire: hommage à J. P. Richard, Paris, Seuil, 1986, p. 115-126

Georges (François), “L’époque de Cioran” in Critique, no. 479, 1987, p. 267-282

Guth (Rupert), Die Philosophie der einmaligen Augenblicke. Überlegungen zu E.M. Cioran, Würzburg, Königshausen & Neumann, 1990

Hell (Cornelius), Skepsis, Mystik und Dualismus. Eine Einführung in das Werk E.M. Ciorans, Bonn, Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, 1985

Heres (Doris), Die Beziehungen der französischen Werke Emile Cioran zu seinen ersten rümanischen Schriften, Bochum, Studienverlag Dr. N. Brockmeyer, 1988

Jarrety (Michel), La morale dans l’écriture : Camus, Char, Cioran, Paris, PUF, 1999

Jaudeau (Sylvie), Cioran ou le dernier homme, Paris, José Corti, 1990

Klupack (William), Finkenthal (Michel), The temptations of Emile Cioran, New York-Berlin-Paris, P. Lang, 1997

Laignel-Lavastine (Alexandra), Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco. L’oubli du fascisme, Paris, PUF, 2002

Liiceanu (Gabriel), E. M. Cioran : itinéraires d’une vie, Paris, Michalon, 1995

Marin (Joan M.), L’escriptura de la llum i el desencant, Valencia, Editorial 7 i mig, 1999

Marin (Joan M.), Cioran o el laberinto de la fatalidad, Valencia, Diputació de Valencia. Institució Alfóns el Magnánim, 2001

Moret (Philippe), Tradition et modernité de l’aphorisme : Cioran, Reverdy, Scutennaire, Jourdan, Chazal, Genève, Droz, 1997

Parfait (Nicole), Cioran ou le défi de l’être, Paris, Desjonquères, 2001

Pecoraro (Rossano), La filosofia del voyeur. Estasi e scriitura in Emile Cioran, Salerno, Il sapere, 1998

Petreu (Marta), Un trecut deocheat sau “Schimbarea la faţă a României”, Cluj, Biblioteca Apostrof, 1999

Petreu (Marta), “Schopenhauer et Cioran. Philosophies paralléles” in Cahier Schopenhauer, Paris, Editions de l’Herne, 1997

Savater (Fernando), Ensayo sobre Cioran, Madrid, Espasa-Calpe, 1992

Sloterdijk (Peter), “Le revanchiste désintéressé” in L’heure du crime et le temps de l’oeuvre d’art, Paris, Calman-Lévy, 2000, p. 151-161

Susan Sontag, “<<Penser contre soi>> : réflexions sur Cioran” in Sous le signe de Saturne, Paris, Seuil, p. 47-75.

Şora (Mariana), Cioran jadis et naguère, Paris, L’Herne, 1988

Tiffreau (Philippe), Cioran ou la dissection du gouffre, Paris, Henri Veyrier, 1991

Tripodi (A. M.), Cioran, metafisico dell’impossible, Roma, Japadre, 1987

Vartic (Ion), Cioran naiv şi sentimental, Cluj-Napoca, Biblioteca Apostrof, 2000

Vizioli (Raffaelo), Orazi (Lucia), La depressione creativa di E. Cioràn, Roma, Edizione Universitarie Romane, 2002


[1] See Susan Sontag, “Penser contre soi: réflections on Cioran” in Sous le signe de Saturne, Paris, Seuil, p. 47-75

[1] Cioran, “Împotriva oamenilor inteligenţi” (“Against Intelligent People”), Discobolul, 9/ May 2003, p. 1-2 in Revelaţiile durerii (Revelations of Suffering), Cluj, Echinox, 1990, p. 106.

[1] Cioran, Cartea amăgirilor (The Book of Illusions), Bucureşti, Humanitas, 1991, p. 81-82

[1] ibid, p. 138

[1] ibid, p. 109

[1] Cioran, Îndreptar pătimaş (Passionate Guide), Bucureşti, Humanitas, 1991, p. 57.

[1] Ibid, p. 46.

[1] Ibid, p. 99.

[1] Ibid, p. 17.

[1] Ibid, p. 10.

[1] Cioran, Amurgul gândurilor (The Crepuscule of Reason), Bucureşti, Humanitas, 1991, p. 91.

[1] Cioran, Cartea amăgirilor (The Book of Illusions), op. Cit, p. 36.

[1] Cioran, Amurgul gândurilor (The Crepuscle of Reason), op. Cit., p. 202.

[1] Ibid, p. 73.

[1] Cioran, Cartea amăgirilor (The Book of Illusions), p. 43.

[1] Ibid, p. 195.

[1] Paul Valéry, Tel Quel, 1, in Oeuvres, II, Paris, Gallimard, 1966, p. 478.

[1] See mostly Cioran , “The Sceptic and the Barbarian” in La chute dans le temps, Oeuvres, Paris, Gallimard, 1995, p. 1096-1106.

[1] Cioran, La Tentation d’exister (The Temptation to Exist) in Oeuvres, p. 885.

[1] Cioran, Le mauvais démiurge (The Evil Demiurge) in Oeuvres, p. 1169.

[1] Cioran, Précis de décomposition (Treaty of Decomposition) in Oeuvres, p. 679.

[1] Ibid, p. 679.

[1] Ibid, p. 680.

[1] Ibid, p. 680-681.

[1] Ibid, p. 686-687.

[1] Ibid, p. 686.

[1] Ibid, p. 687.

[1] Ibid, p. 686-687.

[1] See Cioran, Écartèlement (Excruciation) in Oeuvres, p. 1426-1433.

[1] Ibid, p. 1434-1442.

[1] Ibid, p. 1439.

[1] Ibid, p. 1433.

[1] Ibid, p. 1432.

[1] Cioran, La chute dans le temps (The Fall in Time) in Oeuvres, p. 1987.

[1] Ibid, p. 1086-1087.

[1] Ibid, p. 1088.

[1] See George Bălan, Emil Cioran, Paris, Éditions Josette Lzon, 2002, p. 108-111.

[1] See Cioran, “The Odyssey of Resentment” in Histoire et utopie(History and Utopia), Oeuvres, p. 108-1034.

[1] See Cioran, “The Craving for and the Horror of Glory” in La Chute dans le temps (The Fall in Time), Oeuvres, p. 1113-1122.

[1] See Cioran, “Attending the School of Tyrants” in Histoire et utopie (History and Utopia), Oeuvres, p. 1005-1116.

[1] Cioran, Syllogismes de l’amertume (The Syllogisms of Sadness) in Oeuvres, p. 794.

[1] Ibid, p. 795.

[1] Cioran, Pe culmile disperării (In Full Despair), Bucureşti, Humanitas, 1990, p. 129.

[1] Cioran, Syllogismes de l’amertume (The Syllogisms of Sadness) in Oeuvres, p. 795.

[1] See Livius Ciocârlie, Caietele lui Cioran (Cioran’s Notebooks), Craiova, Scrisul Românesc, 1999.

[1] See Susan Sontag, op. Cit., p. 56.

[1] Jean Chalon, “Un La Rochefoucauld du XXe siècle”, Le Figaro, April 23rd 1977.

[1] The opinion of Benjamin Ivry from Cioran, “Entretien avec Benjamin Ivry”, Entretiens, Paris, Gallimard, 1995, p. 210.

[1] Angleo Rinaldi, “La médecine Cioran”, L’Express, January 24-30th 1986.

[1] Peter Sloterdrijk, “Le revanchiste désintéressé” in L’Heure du crime et le temps de l’oeuvre d’art, Paris, Calman-Lévy, 2000, p. 153.

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