Book review: “The Temptation to Exist”, by E.M. Cioran (David Rodman Smith)

LOS ANGELES TIMES, July 27, 1986

The Temptation to ExistThe Temptation to Exist: by E. M. Cioran; translated by Richard Howard; introduction by Susan Sontag (Seaver: $17.95; 223 pp.)

If you would like to know what philosophizing was like in the ’50s, particularly in Paris, you might well try E. M. Cioran’s “The Temptation to Exist,” but if you already know those times, these essays may produce groans of, “Aw, c’mon, not that again.” Yet, “The Temptation to Exist” is an “underground classic.” It first appeared in France in 1956, was subsequently translated by Richard Howard and published in the United States in 1968, with an introduction by Susan Sontag. This re-publication, which will give Cioran new readers, testifies to its staying power, though despite its stature and the admonition of both Cioran and Sontag against historicising (which sucked the marrow out of philosophy’s abstractionist bones), the book has aged and entered history.

Little known in this country, Cioran may be the most distinguished contemporary in a line descending from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, whom he resembles in his avoidance of traditional modes of philosophical discourse. He employs instead the personal essay, developing it lyrically, surprisingly, from paradox to aphorism: “Masters in the art of thinking against oneself, Nietzsche, Baudelaire and Dostoevsky have taught us to side with our dangers, to broaden the sphere of our disease, to acquire existence by division from our being.” The phrase, “thinking against oneself,” provides the title of the essays and suggests the explosively paradoxical nature of most of them.

But there are problems inherent in the style, for there is a danger that a manner so self-aware, commanding a matter so nebulous, will drift over the boundary between meaning and posture and put us in view of a literary Muscle Beach. Moreover, his wearing the mantle of the “tired European intellectual” may bore and his concern with “being and nothingness” appear a form of intellectual self-abuse. There are dangers in re-publication, 30 years being, perhaps, exactly the wrong delay.

Most of these essays operate within a central paradox, for while Cioran seeks the void where existence can be separated from being and thus asserted, he does not give up time and society. It is complexity forced on him by history, by what is for him Europe’s irreversible decline. Together, Europe and its decline give him responsibility for his own and society’s health and free him from it, place him both inside and outside of engagement and history. He holds to the aristocratic and romantic view of the healthy life by opposing the intellect (“Too much lucidity results in a loss of equilibrium”) and the free mind (“ultimately anti-social, detrimental to the health of the community”). Yet he attacks action (“Led on by the whirlwind of acts , I am nothing but an acolyte of time”) and seeks to free the intellect (“The only free mind is the one that, pure of all intimacy with beings or objects, plies its own vacuity”). At the risk of “a certain coquetry of the void,” as Sontag puts it (what for another might seem a pleasure in carrion, a lack of fresh air, too many Gauloises), the mind becomes its own subject, a voyeur of the self.

Son of an Orthodox priest, Cioran emigrated in 1937 from Romania, where he had been a student of philosophy, to France, where he has since lived and written. He has, he says, “no nationality–the best possible status for an intellectual.” Or, rather, he has taken on a more abstract nationality, for he is self-consciously and nostalgically a European with a sense of cultural fatigue and superiority looking back at national destinies which have run their course: “If, in the past, (national) died for the absurdity of glory, they abandon themselves now to a frenzy of small claims. ‘Happiness’ tempts them; it is their last prejudice, from which Marxism, that sin of optimism, derives its energy.” Or, “When a nation begins to show its age, it orients itself toward the condition of the masses.” He rejects this “coward’s pact,” which has replaced the ruthless energies that built past glories and holds to an aristocratic and organicist view of nations.

He brings to mind another who moved west and wrote in a second language, an aristocrat, but Joseph Conrad wanted “History not Theory.” For him, organicism and ideas of national destiny were a blind for Russian absolutism and mysticism, belief without an idea. One of his Russian characters calls the pragmatic and reasoned Western solutions to government “a pact with the Devil.” But Conrad admired the rational, whereas Cioran sees the Age of Enlightenment as the enemy.

Cioran looks at the portraits in the National Gallery and asks where those virile faces have gone. These were the “adventurers, brutes” who let “no concern for the honorable thing ” stand in their way. But no “Englishman today could rise himself” to such a level, for “all his instincts are throttled by his decency.” Europe’s last chance lay with the Germans, who should have owned the 20th Century as the French did the 18th; but they harnessed themselves to a grotesque tribal vision. Yet, he asks, did not even that reveal “that they alone, in the West, preserved some vestiges of energy and barbarism, and that they were still capable of a grand design or of a vigorous insanity?” An element of sensibility is missing here, a tone deafness he exhibits in “A People of Solitaries,” about the Jews as representatives of the “alienated condition par excellence.” The bluff, direct manner (“Discretion is deadly to genius; ruinous to talent”) cannot take into account the overtones of history, not even the bourdon of the 20th Century’s greatest disaster.

But there are marvelous passages, particularly when Cioran writes about writing and the self-consciousness that destroys authenticity, or about the need to be outre as a path to the self in a time out of control. And there are moments of the sheerest delight as, when leaving his Eucephalus to mount a more comfortable Rosinante, he finds in Spain a situation which leaves the mind free to labor: “They live in a kind of melodious asperity, a tragic non-seriousness , which saves them from vulgarity, from happiness, and from success.”

Howard’s translations captures the stylistic compressions and explosions. And Sontag’s essay, possibly the best thing on Cioran in English, serves as an excellent guide to this difficult writer.