“And there, sir, lies the entire problem, to have within oneself the inseparable reality and the material clarity of feeling, to have it in such a degree that the feeling cannot but express itself, to have a wealth of words and of formal constructions which can join in the dance, serve one’s purpose-and at the very moment when the soul is about to organize its wealth, its discoveries, this revelation, at the unconscious moment when the thing is about to emanate, a higher and evil will attacks the soul like vitriol, attacks the word and image mass, attacks the mass of feeling and leaves me panting at the very door of life.”— ANTONIN ARTAUD
To say that Cioran is a paradox would be only a half-truth. He is ambivalent even about the possibility of being self-contradictory, profoundly skeptical of irony itself. Nevertheless, he is, crabwise, on the attack. The obsessive theme of these interrelated essays—his fifth of six such collections, and the second to appear in English—is his revulsion against fashionable despair, that democratic access to bathos and absurdity which serves as the intellectual superstructure of our time.
Stop anyone over twelve on the street today and on a moment’s notice he can provide a Spenglerian theory of our decline; any housewife can chart her loneliness in the grand tradition of Kafka and Kierkegaard. We have become proud of our pessimism, elevated our melancholy to the status of a metaphysic. Cioran’s diagnosis is that while contemporary man has managed to begin “dying on his own,” his pride is such that he cannot even sense the humiliation of the enterprise. Man is the only animal who can endure any metamorphosis by putatively explaining it, justify any loss without understanding its implications. This would be an incredible spectacle were there anyone else to watch it. As it stands, the Apocalypse becomes only another occasion for self-congratulation and theorizing; the Angst of our time, only the newest form of hubris.
It is the cliches of despair, the banality of the abyss which fuel Cioran’s withering indifference. The progressive disrealization of the world which began in the Renaissance is for him an unutterable tragedy, a matter to be savored by an elitist of suffering, not popularized as the latest accessory to bourgeois idealism. The split between sensation and thinking is not a “frame of reference,” a problem to be solved by “interdisciplinary studies,” but an insomniacal agony, the very articulation of which only redoubles and regenerates our pain. In those few instances in which Cioran drops his lofty detachment, becomes an active complainer, he echoes Artaud: “All I ask is to feel my brain.”
Style as Risk
One can best understand Cioran as a phenomenon of the French language, as distinct from French culture, and French literary culture in particular. While he may be sloppily assigned to those long if thinning ranks of Pascalian skeptics or contemporary “existential” thinkers, his achievement lies in the repudiation of such influences—or, more precisely, in carrying the premises of their relativism to a logical if outrageous conclusion. Since Cioran does not engage in specific polemic nor acknowledge by name any other living writer, one can only imagine the extent of his contempt for the “committed” literature of a Sartre, for the systematic and relentless attempt to justify the duality of being and nonbeing, for the entire enterprise of attempting to resolve the ambiguities of literature and life. Similarly, one can see him jeering at the plight of Camus’ Sisyphus, or for that matter at any other of those humorless existential trade unionists who compound their incompetence with stoicism, pit their solipsism against determinism and call it dignity. These “heroic” poses represent for Cioran only the latest revenge of the intellect against itself and confirm the loss of our best instincts. “To be human is no solution,” as he says, “any more than ceasing to be so.”
For Cioran, ontology itself is a specious problem, even an “ontology of nothingness,” to use Michel Foucault’s phrase, since reports of “the void” tend to be just as unverifiable as those about what we “know.” There is nothing particularly affirmative about acknowledging the negative. Just because we hate ourselves, he observes apropos of Tolstoy, does not mean we still arc not living a lie. The realization of “nothingness” is one thing-like going into a room and reporting that “nothing was there”—but one cannot begin at the beginning of nothingness any more than one can start at the beginning of any learning process; one cannot make assertions about language or nature from a hypothetical vantage point outside them. Anomie is our condition, anomia our curse, anomaly our profession. Or to put it another way: our scabrous individuality consists of trying to name our condition. Man loses his primordial grace in literally trying to “make a name” for himself.
The central concern of The Temptation to Exist, Cioran’s first book to appear in English, was to confirm the total disjunction between language and reality. That work represents a kind of final assault on the typology which has formed the basis of Western thought—the notion that the physical world embodies signs of metaphysical reality; and, more, that if human intelligence is pure, it can define these correspondences through language. “The works of God” as Jonathan Edwards had it, “are but a kind of. voice or language to instruct beings in things pertaining to himself… wherever we are, and whatever we are about, we may see divine things excellently represented… and it will abundantly tend to confirm the Scriptures, for there is an excellent agreement between these things and the Scripture.”
But for Cioran, language is a sticky symbolic net, an infinite regression from things cutting men off from the world, as they once cut themselves off from God; and so, to scramble the metaphor, humans are no more than shadows who project their images upon the mirror of infinity. (“A shadow grappling with images, a somnambulist who sees himself walking… “) What Edwards called the “images or shadows of divine things,” Cioran would rearrange as ‘divined images by shadows of no things.’ This conclusion of The Temptation to Exist becomes the working hypothesis of The Fall into Time. Nothing divine, only the divined: language, insofar as it can reorient our behavior, perhaps slows the death of the species; but at the same time, in increasing our endless analogies for experience, it prevents us from being fully alive to ourselves. Neutralized by our uniqueness, we become incapable of capitalizing even on what sets us apart from the animals-our capacity for indifference. Style is the man—unfortunately for us. As Cioran puts it: “Consciousness is not lucidity. Lucidity, man’s monopoly, represents the severance process between the mind and the world; it is necessarily consciousness of consciousness, and if we are to distinguish ourselves from the animals, it is lucidity alone which must receive the credit or the blame.”
Language as a vicious circle literally signifying nothing except itself becomes the exaggeration pro forma of man’s condition—all speech hyperbole, all prose rhetorical, all poetry prosedemic, all thought proleptic. It is not a new idea. Nietzsche elaborated it better than anyone. Wittgenstein confirmed it with positivist precision: “Philosophy is a battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by the means of language.” Cioran would be appalled if anyone accused him of originality in thought, which would not be necessarily desirable even if it were possible. What is original is his personalization of these ideas through his style: “Every idolatry of style starts from the belief that reality is even more hollow than its verbal figuration, that the accent of an idea is worth more than the idea, a well-turned excuse more than a conviction, a skillful image more than an unconsidered explosion… A well-proportioned sentence, satisfied with its equilibrium or swollen with its sonority, all too often conceals the malaise of a mind incapable of acceding by sensation to an original universe. What is surprising if style should be simultaneously a mask and an admission?”
French, that pluperfect language, is the perfect vehicle for Cioran, whose thought is circuitous without being tautological, whose circumvolved syntax can gather a point and discharge it in the same phrase. His style is so sonorous that even the reader who could not understand the French of the following could delight in saying it aloud to himself: “Je rêve d’ une langue dont les mots, commes des poings, fracasseraient les mâchoires…” Cioran’s sentences lie about his culture like clean shards struck from an unfinished, blocked-out torso.
While nothing in The Fall into Time offers as much of a lyrical tour de force as the essays “A People of Solitaries” or “Beyond the Novel” in The Temptation to Exist, The Fall represents an even more advanced process of compression, one might even say asphyxiation. The more Cioran attacks rationality, the more pellucid he becomes. There are no transitions, no breathing spaces between these paragraphs, no hiatus in these gnomic sentences, so classic in their density, yet touched with baroque recapitulations which heighten not the harmony but the irony. The book should end with a blank signature to hold the air that has been extruded from the text.
It is not difficult to translate Cioran’s ideas for their apothegmatic arrangement lends itself to facile reconstruction. The temptation is to cease his momentum, grasp him by the aphorism, make him into a kind of Gallic Oscar Wilde. The problem is to capture his complexity as well as his precision, both the acceleration and aphasia of his cyclic cadences, and this is the particular triumph of Richard Howard’s translation. It is the decisiveness of Cioran’s style which both accentuates and gives the lie to the ambivalence of his message; it is a style which does not embody his thoughts as much as it exemplifies the consequences of his thought. As Edward Said has pointed out, Cioran is to the essay what Borges is to fiction.1
His Friends, the Enemy
For Cioran, sterility itself becomes a strategy. His method is calculated to defy introduction, his individual works serve to undermine his oeuvre. The parts are always more than the whole. But at the same time he infects us with what he insists is man’s worst impulse – to append, explain, refute, to add to – to take language as seriously as we might take life were we abler. Other writers cry out for attention; one reads Cioran to be rid of him. One writes in order to ignore him. One is “fair” to him at one’s peril. For his attenuation and ascesis demand that we justify those impure energies which activate our willingness to account for him, to put him in context—for in doing so, we confess our inability to take him at his word, becoming one of that “throng of readers, those omnipresent and invisible murderers.” Not unlike certain great ladies, he possesses you in order to disdain your interest.
In this respect, he asks to be demolished, but only totally, and so maintains a certain invulnerability. For what he says of Sextus Empericus applies to himself: “Too subtle and too methodical to compete with the new superstitions, [his treatises] were the expression of a world already consummated, futureless, doomed. Yet skepticism, whose theses they had codified, managed to survive a while on lost positions.”
It is easy to quote Cioran against himself; indeed, he demands it. But the strategy requires that you have the last word. No one who has written on him to date has been able to resist it. I first came across him—or rather his essay on the novel—nine years ago, and that essay was later to serve as a departure point for a self-conscious piece2 I wrote to refute those who similarly, if rather belatedly, rehearsed their versions of “the death of the novel.” In the end, I found myself quoting him in defense of my positions, which were presumably refutations of his. What’s more, it worked. A self-contradiction which Cioran would applaud for its own sake.
Likewise, in the first sustained appreciation of his work to appear in English, Claude Mauriac, after praising Cioran highly and admitting his central point—”meaning begins to be dated … we know nothing that essentially distinguishes us… as a result, we all write the same books”—Mauriac suddenly cries out at the end of his essay: “I shall not give up the idea of seeing and knowing more than what we already see and know. Therefore, we reaffirm that even for alitterateurs, everything ends in literature…”3 Which is of course the point that Cioran is making ten years later in The Fall into Time. It is important to notice how Cioran forces Mauriac, forces all of us, to admit that the urge to fictionalize, to see and know more, is basically irrational, if not evil.4
Nevertheless, one should not view him as an alittérateur in Mauriac’s tradition, for indeed his indictment of fiction applies most strongly to the “new” or anti-novel: “These days, no one escapes the exacerbation of the intellect… the monumental no longer possible… the interesting is raised to the level of a genre… Page after page, the accumulation of inconsequence… the advent of a novel without a subject… no more plot, characters, complications, causality… psychology cancels itself out… only a self survives, recalling that it once existed… the novelist knows only the periphery, the boundaries of being; that is why he is a writer…” And in any case, Cioran sees himself less a negator than a doubter, because “to live without a goal is more difficult than to live for a bad cause.”
Finally, Cioran knows he has an advantage and admits it. “Criticism is of the ages,” he says, “… religious inspirations [and, we presume, other art] a privilege of certain eminently rare periods. It requires a great deal of thoughtlessness and intoxication to engender a god, to kill one requires only a little attention.” Cioran reaffirms Thomas Mann’s pronouncement that every modem artist must become his own critic—but for Cioran this is hardly a salutary event, just the necessity of the artist to explain what he might have done.
In another vein, William Gass makes use of a vitriolic and lengthy attack upon Cioran5 to append some epistolary paragraphs on the possibilities of love and growth as an antidote to Cioran’s “incurable pessimism”: “To feel at home in our body, to sense the true nostos of it, is, to have it move to our will so smoothly we seem will-less altogether.” Actually, what Cioran is saying in The Temptation to Exist is that it is our penchant for diagnosis which is our sickness, and that is precisely why it is incurable. It is our relentless attempt to be well that distracts us and finishes us off in the end. Again, Cioran has provoked the reader-who-is-also-a-writer into the kind of self-justificatory and sentimental outburst which he defines as the seat of our hopelessness. And to the analogy of the will-less body with which Gass attacks his Temptation to Exist, Cioran would seem to offer an oblique rejoinder in The Fall into Time: “True, most men breathe without realizing, without thinking about it; should their breath fail them someday, they will discover how air, suddenly converted into a problem, haunts them every instant. Woe unto those who know they are breathing…”
Similarly, or at least more topically, Susan Sontag, after much praise and brilliant analysis, ends up by placing Cioran against John Cage, which is precisely the sort of ludicrous juxtaposition and oblation that Cioran asks for-but again, the critic is finally reduced to telling us about herself, finishing the story Cioran drops so engagingly.6 (“We attribute reality to others,” Cioran says, “only insofar as we discover it in ourselves.”)
There is, however, one aspect of Miss Sontag’s program for Cioran which I think would baffle him, for while he would heartily approve of her habit of putting concepts such as The West in quotes and now in parentheses, her characterization of his political sensibility as “right-wing Catholic” is a bit shallow, even if one acknowledges the old cliche about how much French Catholics secretly desire to be Communists and vice versa. It is important to note that, having survived the major political cataclysms of this century, Cioran’s indifference to politics, his taking his alien status seriously (which is to say, metaphorically), results in an attitude which cannot be described in conventional ideological terms. It is manifestly to his credit that, unlike most intellectuals, émigrés in particular, he does not offer his aesthetics as a surrogate politics, nor confuse his personal experience with the intellectual history of our time. The East/West conflict for Cioran is that between the beatific Buddha and grimacing Saviour, not Nicolae Ceausescu and Georges Pompidou. His “letter” to a fellow intellectual in Rumania is worth quoting at some length in this respect:
Freedom in the West, in order to manifest itself, requires a void—and succumbs to it. The condition which determines it is the very one which annihilates it. This freedom lacks foundation; the more complete it is, the more it overhangs an abyss, for everything threatens it, down to the principles from which it derives. Man is so little made to endure or deserve it, that the very benefits he receives from it crush him, and freedom ultimately brings him to the point where he prefers, to its excesses, those of terror. To these disadvantages are added others: a liberal society, eliminating mystery, the absolute, order, and possessing the true metaphysic no more than a true police, cast the individual back upon himself, while dividing him from what he is from his own depths… Imagine a society overpopulated with doubt, in which, with the exception of a few strays, no one adheres utterly to anything; in which unscathed by superstition, certainties, everyone pays lip service to freedom and no one respects the form of government which defends and incarnates it… You are disappointed after promises which could not be kept; we, by a lack of any promises at all…7
Cioran should be required reading for those liberals who cannot understand the revolt of their children against their benevolent pragmatism, but neither the new radical nor the Establishmentarian will find much comfort with him: “At any price we must keep those who have too clear a conscience from living and dying in peace… “
Moreover, one should note the most oblique but crucial of the essays in this volume, “Skeptic and Barbarian,” perhaps the distillation of Cioran’s thought with regard to culture and society, where he says: “Civilizations… begin by myth and end in doubt; a theoretical doubt which, once it turns against itself become quite practical. … For the various beliefs it had engendered and which now break adrift it substitutes a system of uncertainties, it organizes its metaphysical shipwreck… [it] exists in a kind of furious stupor.”
In such an age, two kinds of skeptics appear; the first, true skeptics: those who “frequently, even inevitably, call [doubt] itself into question, [for doubt] prefers to abolish itself rather than see its perplexities degenerate into articles of faith.” Against these elitists, however, there appears another sort of skeptic, the Barbarian: “He too will know the suspension of judgment and the abolition of sensations, but only within a crisis… leaping outside the aporias in which his mind has vegetated, he shifts from inertia to exultation… these are the traitors to skepticism… a depth of barbarism which the majority, which virtually the totality of men have the good fortune to preserve.”
If the “true” skeptic cannot succeed by his own means, he will seek the help of the Barbarian, “whose role is not to solve but to suppress problems, and with them, the hyperacute consciousness which torments the weak man even when he has renounced all speculative activity… and so he will urge his enemy to come and deliver him from his final agony.”
It is clear that Cioran’s literary elitism becomes more complex when extended to politics. Indeed, he sees himself as a potential “traitor to skepticism”; he would like to side with the barbarians, and he becomes (as always, in spite of himself) their witting accomplice. The “relevance” of his analogy to our present situation hardly needs elaboration.
It is instructive, nevertheless, to note how defensive we become in the face of such passionate uncertainty. The philosopher, the critic, the artist, all find it necessary to justify their activity in the face of such subtle undermining, the casual glancing blows of dubiety. Otherwise we are in danger of seeming mere addenda to Cioran’s argument, prooftext for his self-ridicule, just one more word in the world. Cioran’s favorite trick, after all, is to dig a disguised pit for the man of pride, literary pride in particular, and then to leap into it himself before you fall, depriving you of even the delectation of being fooled. So the victim falls, if not out of time precisely, at least onto Cioran. Make no mistake about it, he loves it. It is easy to miss his humor—that grin which from a distance is impossible to read as anguish or ecstasy, that silent laugh of the gargoyle, the jester/fiend, the jongleur.
Impassivity and imposture
What can you do with a man who attacks you for his mistakes, and then insists those very errors are most worth having? What can you do with a writer who writes off writing with writing, who would not give up an instant of fear for an admirer? How to locate a mind which seemingly speaks out of nowhere, and then only against itself? To what use could we Americans have put this delicate, perilous tongue had he chosen it, what would we have done to a man who urges us “to throw ourselves on the ground and cry every time we feel like it?” A great entertainer, perhaps? A teen-age murderer? Must we end up dismissing him as a unique?
It is easy to understand why Cioran has been so uniformly ignored—his impossibilist vocabulary, his library of books which no one else has read, the cold elegance of his aphoristic syntax, his hatred for the present which makes liberals think he is a reactionary, the insistent isolato voice which makes conservatives think he is an anarchist, the effortless erudition which gains him the suspicion of scholars, the astringent elitism which can only put the wider audience he deserves hopelessly on the defensive. Too tough-minded to be considered tragic, too funny to be a true terrorist, the barbarian appears on the rim of the Carpathians to preside at the death of a civilization, only to be “civilized” in spite of himself, a redundant eremite, a specialist in the last gasp.
Given Cioran’s enormous efforts to repudiate writing as a career, the contemporary reader may tend to underestimate what is most striking about his accomplishment. For the most difficult task for the writer is not how to “make a living,” to ignore both insult and loneliness, but how to survive one’s “circle,” one’s own supportive contemporaries. While most of the intelligentsia of Cioran’s Sixth Arrondissement in the late ’30’s and ’40’s have long since repaired to their respective ministries of culture and/or ceased writing altogether, we still receive terse messages from one who has stayed put, made a profession of not being for sale, had the strength to let his talent mature at its own pace. (Cioran was thirty-six before he even decided to write in French.) As Edward Dahlberg, the only living writer I know of who has affinities with Cioran, says: “I don’t think we write for anybody, just like we die for nobody… every time we compose a good line, a forest springs up in our hearts.” Cioran could only concur with an imperceptible nod. Neither of them can forgive a society in which hermeticism is the only possible honesty.
There is really only one problem for writers, how to keep working—and one for other humans, how to endure lucidity without bitterness. Here is an exemplar, one who has survived both the vacuity of contemporary life and claustrophobic dédoublage of Europe, living off his own reserve of strangulated fury, “perpetually irritated at the heart of inanity.” He remains a strangely endearing reaffirmation of consciousness, of sleeplessness, in an era of sleepwalkers:
Our contemporaries, those indiscreet, frustrated creatures who by deifying confession, appetite and effort are guilty of having turned us into lyrical puppets, are insatiable as we are exhausted? The only excuse for their fury is that it derives not from a fresh instinct or a sincere impulse, but from panic in the face of a clogged horizon. So many of our philosophers who brood, flabbergasted, over the future are really no more than interpreters of a humanity which, realizing that the moments are escaping, struggles not to think about it-and thinks about it continually. Their systems generally offer the image and in a sense the discursive development of the obsession. Similarly, History could solicit their attention only at a moment when man has every reason to doubt that it still belongs to him, that he continues to be its agent. Indeed, everything suggests that since History too escapes him, man is beginning a non-historical career, brief, convulsive, which relegates to the ranks of insipidity the disasters with which it was hitherto so smitten.
It is doubtful whether any American literary sensibility can fully comprehend Cioran’s strategy. We have made the void our myth, and our traditional technique has been that of appropriating the worldengorgement. Placeless autodidacts, we have congratulated ourselves on creating a few legends where there were none, erected an immense peopleless mythology which we find now, rather sullenly, somewhat less comprehensive than we expected. Cioran could sympathize: “Man emerges from anonymity by a series of repudiations which make him the great deserter of being.” But his own response is to move subtly from defiance and despair to relinquishment. Victim of the accumulation of legends rather than their lack, it falls to him to execute whatever myth remains, and so he calls for the final blow to the old world’s pieties; distills, divagates the remains until his consciousness relapses from itself—
The self, triumphing over its functions, shrinks to a point of consciousness projected into the infinite, outside of time.
He knows he could have become a great mystic—a connoisseur of that last frontier for Western will—for then his disdain of attention could have been given the texture of a tradition. But as much as he admires the vegetable, he knows we are incapable of surfeiting ourselves, even with pain. Western man is de-natured, and can only work himself back, not to his God, but His condition: “Amid his seamless hebetude, a single thought still agonizes [man] …. What did God do when he did nothing? How did He spend, before the Creation, His terrible leisure?… I was, I am, I will be, me is a question of grammar and not of existence.”
Perhaps Cioran adopts the pose of a man without influence, since his own writing seems so totally without influences. Certainly, he can be best defined in terms of what he has bypassed. What other twentiethcentury thinker is so untouched by either Marx or Freud? Partially, this is due to his assault on determinism—economic, erotic, or existential. It would be clearly preferable, he would say, to deny our freedom, that ugly knowledge that our paralysis is self-inflicted, or to adopt some utopian view of the past or an apocalyptic future. Then we could exist by either renouncing ourselves or denouncing our enemies. But the trick, in every sense, is to will “just enough to live,” since our choice is between “impassivity and imposture,” and though the finest thing about us is our rage, direct repudiation implies a “complicity with certainty,” and as such denies our condition.
Reformist critiques of society, then, degenerate into equally profane analyses, instances only of our genius for turning back on ourselves—Marxism merely an involuted example of what capitalist societies have done to “backward” cultures. “The civilized man… in order to push them there… will inoculate them with the poison of anxiety and release them only when he has observed in them the same symptoms of haste as in himself.” Cast by knowledge into time, it becomes doubly impossible for us to imagine a present; the future becomes only something to be remembered, “the past that is to come.” No system, more than any man, is immune to the deceptions of technology, and our inhuman means of production are the consequence, not the cause, of our condition.
As for psychoanalysis, that “sadistic therapeutics… singularly expert in the art of substituting, for our naive discomforts, an intricate variety,” why should we expect any more from health than from history since our will ejects us from both? If man is the unhappy animal because he asks himself too many questions, then of what use is that most interrogative of sciences? The promise of less anxiety is as dubious as that of more leisure. Our sickness, after all, is our only common bond; suffering, the created consciousness of the race. If we are defined by fear, then neither Marx or Freud can allay it, since the one offers a fall back into history to “encounter oneself”; the other, a retreat into the self to divine history. Our organism cannot be adapted to either, for in an “explained universe, nothing would still have a meaning but madness itself.”
The problem is dictated neither by culture nor personality but by language… Language, that which “outlives itself,” is what prevents us from going beyond the boundaries of the self. This is Cioran’s chant of shame. The poison of individualism has been with us from the beginning, and we must acknowledge our pain and sickness since they are the very preconditions of our consciousness. There is no going back to a pre-linguistic paradise, to a supremacy over time based upon some primordial stupidity, any more than we can decay into a future McLuhanite garden of undifferentiated consciousness, an apotheosis of silence where we can treat our wordlessness as innocence. And the writer’s only dignity is that he should know this better than anyone, that in his banishment he stands for all men. Small consolation. “Our opinions are tumors which destroy the integrity of our nature and nature itself.”
And yet if words are nets which buffer us from life, they also slow our fall toward death. They make it possible to reflect upon our dissent, descent, make it “methodical.” There can be no audience for this enterprise, inasmuch as a public will invariably confuse its ability to react with the artist’s ability to explore, reduce such endless interrogations to “pessimism.” For it is we, that unknown and invisible public, whose existence becomes problematic in the face of Cioran’s uncompromising insecurity.
The Dream, the Lie, of Diversity
Cioran is clearly a self-styled straddler of the modern and post-modern eras. In his rigor, his erudition, his hatred of the dissolution of language, his formalism which constitutes its own morality, he is a legitimate heir to the great European modernists. But whereas the modernists never doubted their capacity to construct imaginary edifices against a world which revolted them, the post-modern era is characterized by a revulsion against our very means and materials, a hatred of our minds coextensive with our hatred for what passes for the world. Cioran stands for us, then, as that rarest of thinkers—a crucial transitional figure who occupies not a place so much as a synapse in the devolution of Western thought. As Wilde, another more frivolous son of Nietzsche has elaborated, some critics might prefer to explain ideas, but the task is really to “deepen their mystery,” combat one’s doubts and certitudes with equal energy.
Cioran would agree with the Structuralists that language can be reduced to formal models which have no universal or synthetic consequences. Further, he would agree that words cut us off from our origins and have no direct instrumental relation to the world. But Cioran would also insist that professional detachment, literary or otherwise, is no cure for alienation. Exposing one’s ignorance and limitations cannot be justified as either scientific or therapeutic. The absurd is not the amusing theater we have made it. If we insist on converting even our terror into constructive entertainment, then we shall have truly lost everything, consigned ourselves to that “wrong eternity.”
The only thing, it would seem, that Cioran does not comprehend, or at least has not yet bothered to articulate, is his own delight in language in spite of himself his obsession to become what he writes, the necessit’y to write “in order,” as Le Clezio says, “to conquer the silence of other langt:ages.” For while he has perhaps succeeded in “falling out of time,” he has failed to reach that Archimedean point, that privileged position outside of language “external to the world and to himself.”
It is here that we must either confess with Pascal and Rousseau that we are trapped within language and dignify silence as the only nobility, or reassert our faith in the very plasticity of life, in its metalinguistic possibilities, as did Nietzsche and William James. In Cioran’s words: “To realize oneself is to dedicate oneself to the intoxication of multiplicity.” This is the duality which Cioran offers, and while he explicitly argues for Rousseau’s penultimate silence, his conduct is contradictory, and marvelously so. For in the same gesture by which he denies himself existence, he affirms the power of speech, and this is the paradox which is, even for him, finally unassimilable.
It is true that we “live” in a circle of language, but it is simply a matter of rhetoric (which is to say free choice) whether we choose to describe that circle as vicious or magical. To assert either at the expense of the other, Cioran would pronounce absurd, but he is subtle enough to know that “To produce, to create… is to have the courage or the luck not to perceive the lie of diversity, the deceptive character of the multiple… to produce a work is to espouse all those incompatibilities, all those fictive oppositions so dear to restless minds. More than anyone, the writer knows what he owes to these semblances, these deceptions, and should be aware of becoming indifferent to them. If he neglects or denounces them, he cuts the ground from his own feet… if he turns to the absolute, what he finds there will be, at best, a delectation in stupor…”
That point at which we cease thinking about language and willfully make best use of it -“anyone who is carried away by his reasoning forgets that he is using reason, and this forgetting is the condition of all creative thought…”-that is the point at which the critic becomes the artist, and Cioran has had both the “courage” and the “luck” to do so. Paralysis, perhaps, but paralysis on our own terms, and while certainly not much comfort in words, still, life. Still-life. The methodical fall.
“I can truly say that I am not in the world, and this is not a mere mental attitude… Moreover it matters little. I prefer to show myself as I am, in my inexistence and uprootedness . . . [but] the reader must believe that it is a matter of an actual sickness and not a phenomenon of the age, of a sickness which is related to the essence of the human being and his central possibility of expression…”— ARTAUD
NEWMAN Charles, Introduction to The fall into time. Transl. by Richard Howard. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970, p. 9-32.
1. Edward W. Said, “Amateur of the Insoluble,” Hudson Review, XXI, No. 4 (Winter 1968-I96c)). This is the best consideration of The Temptation to Exist to appear in either English or French.
2. “Beyond Omniscience: Notes Towards a Future for the Novel,” in The New American Writers, edited by Charles Newman and William Henkin, Bloomington, Ind., 1969.
3. Claude Mauriac, The New Literature, New York, 1957.
4. This idea is elaborated in Cioran’s most recent book, The Evil Demiurge (1969), in which he primarily addresses himself to what Camus called the only philosophical question -that of suiicide – and dismisses it characteristically: “L’obsession du suicide est le propre de celui jui ne peut ni vivre ni mourir et dont l’attention ne s’ecarte jamais de cette double impossibilité.“
5. William H. Gass, “The Evil Demiurge,” New York Review of Books, August 22, 1968.
6. “”On Cioran,” TriQuarterly II (Winter 1968). Introduction to The Temptation to Exist (Chicago, 1968).
7. “Letter to a Distant Friend,” TriQuarterly I I (Winter 1968),