“Cioran: Existentialism, Gnosticism, Nihilism” – Ioan P. CULIANU


We will not insist on analyzing the relations between existentialism and Gnosticism established by Hans Jonas. I have already done this elsewhere, in detail (Gnosticismo, pp. 119 sq.). Gnosticism and existentialism resemble the phenomenology of the being-in-the-world, which is “pro-iectation” (Geworfenheit), abandonment, forgetfulness, inauthenticity. But while this condition forms, for the Gnostic, only the negative basis that elicits in him the positive force of anguish and the energy necessary to obtain salvation, in the case of existentialism it represents worldliness in general, which hides the meaning of being as being-for-death. Not only are they not Gnostics, but the opposite of Gnosticism. The explanation, very complicated in genetic terms, nevertheless appears very simple in typological terms: existentialism appears as one of the most typical forms of modern nihilism, which is anti-metaphysical, while Gnosticism is the champion of transcendence in the history of Western ideas. It was necessary for one to be the other way around.

It is true, however, that Gnostic imagery exerts a strong fascination on existentialist thinkers. Camus discovered it by preparing his work for the Diploma of Higher Studies (1936), a work entitled Métaphysique chrétienne et neoplatonisme (a single available edition, full of errors – Essais, Pléiade, 183, pp. 1220-1313).  He had not read much on the subject (ib., p. 1311: the bibliography contains ten authors), but had read well, especially Eugène de Faye. His exposition (ib., pp. 1250-69) does not give the impression that gnosis was an exalting subject for him. But many of the titles of his masterpieces — the Stranger, the Fall, the Exile and the Kingdom — are gnostic metaphors. We are dealing with a nihilism that becomes self-conscious — an experience that, being the negative of gnosis, resembles it.

A knight of nihilism, located at the antipode of gnosis and thus resembling it most, is Emil Cioran. His fundamental theme is, moreover, the eternal Gnostic question: unde malum? For him, the failure of being born is explained by the existence of the evil Demiurge, the Maker of this world. Heresy is his natural environment. In his memorable essay on Joseph de Maistre, we see him moving dizzily from one heresy to another, like the fallen archangel, heretic among heretics. We see him first criticize the Augustinian position, which reduces evil to a privatio boni. He then immediately becomes a Manichean, claiming that Good and Evil are two co-eternal principles. One page further, he falls into the Ockhamist heresy, according to which man in the cosmos is not present in front of God nor has he any special merit, one that would make him more important than the ants. Some two pages further, he enthusiastically enters the field of Mesalian heresy, stating that evil is part of human nature, in order to finally reach origenism: how to explain human history differently than through an original, abrupt multiplication of evil and multiplicity? Four heresies in four pages, here is a record that Cioran does not share with anyone, not even with the heresologists themselves!

CULIANU, Ioan P., Gnozele dualiste ale Occidentului. Iași: Polirom, 2002, p. 327-8.

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