“E. M. Cioran, Nihilist and Ecstatic” (Robert Wicks)

Life and works

In a brief autobiographical sketch, Emile Mihai Cioran described himself as follows:

I was born on the 8th April 1911 in Rasinari, a village in the Carpathians, where my father was a Greek Orthodox priest. From 1920 to 1928 I attended the Sibiu grammar school. From 1929 to 1931 I studied at the Faculty of Arts at Bucharest University. Postgraduate studies in philosophy until 1936. In 1937 I came to Paris with a scholarship from the French Institute in Bucharest and have been living here ever since. I have no nationality – the best possible status for an intellectual. On the other hand, I have not disowned my Romanian origins; had I to choose a country, I would still choose my own. Before the war I published various essays in Romanian of a more or less philosophical nature. I only began writing in French in about 1947. It was the hardest experience I have ever undergone. This precise, highly disciplined, and highly exacting language seemed as restrictive as a straitjacket. Even now I must confess that I do not feel completely at ease with it. It is this feeling of uneasiness which has led me to ponder the problem of style and the very anomaly of writing. All my books are more or less autobiographical – a rather abstract form of autobiography, I admit.

Among Romanian intellectuals who became known outside their native country – individuals such as Tristan Tzara (1896–1963), Mircea Eliade (1907–86), and Eugène Ionesco (1912–94) – E.M.Cioran was among the least appreciated during his lifetime. And he wished things to be this way, intentionally avoiding notoriety and living quietly on the Left Bank in Paris. Unlike Camus, who believed that the only fame worth having is the fame that is lived, Cioran was uninterested in fame, either during his own life, or posthumously. Utterly convinced of the meaninglessness of existence,Cioran led an inconspicuous life, often in poverty, periodically living in inexpensive hotel rooms, suffering from insomnia, eating in cafeterias and eking out a meager and unpretentious existence. He worked part-time as a manuscript reader and translator, during which time he wrote articles – some of which appeared in the Evergreen Review – and his collections of aphoristic books.Cioran died in Paris on June 20, 1995.

Irreconcilable perspectives within human consciousness

In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche recalls the story of King Midas, who, in his quest to discover what is best and most desirable in human life, sought for the council of the wise and mythic Silenus.What Silenus had to say came as an unexpected surprise, for his ‘wisdom’ was to claim that what is best for the human being, is the impossible condition of not having come into existence to begin with. To be ‘nothing,’ Silenus awesomely laughed, is the best condition for the human being. The second best condition, he added, is ‘to die soon.’He regarded life as an accursed condition. Unlike Nietzsche, whose philosophy attempted to provide a positive value to life in the face of its horror, Cioran remains in sympathy with the nihilistic wisdom of Silenus. Like Albert Camus, Cioran philosophizes in recognition of the proposition that human life loses its value when it is seen from afar, either from the standpoint of distant space or distant time. Cioran, however, writes with greater scorn, less nostalgia for, and with less heroic celebration of, life’s absurdity. His thinking leaves only the most minimalized room for salvation, and he faces the prospect of cosmic meaninglessness with a stark acknowledgment of how it diminishes the significance of moral evaluations:

We should repeat to ourselves every day: I am one of the billions dragging himself across the earth’s surface. One, and no more. This banality justifies any conclusion, any behavior or action: debauchery, chastity, suicide, work, crime, sloth, or rebellion … Whence it follows that each man is right to do what he does.

During the nineteenth century, Fyodor Dostoevski (1821–81) – through the voice of literary characters such as Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov (1878–80) – also pondered whether everything is permissible, if there is no God to enforce, reinforce, and provide substance to moral prescriptions. Using a different line of reasoning, Cioran comparably concludes that everything is permissible, if only because each person is so numerically insignificant. For him, it makes no difference what one does in the larger scheme of things, whether or not one’s behavior is moral or immoral, because one’s existence ultimately makes no difference. According to the reasoning patterns of both Dostoevski’s literary characters and Cioran, an amoral condition issues from a perceived lack of absolute and objectively grounded meaning.

We have also seen earlier, and in contrast, how in his recognition of the absurd, Albert Camus defends a more Nietzschean ethic of integrity, courage, and strength, insofar as he maintains that suicide and religious faith are escapist, and therefore condemnable, reactions to the absurdity of life. Cioran does not advocate suicide, but he is less concerned with evaluating alternative lifestyles: for him, every lifestyle diminishes in significance when seen from a wider and more objective perspective, and he believes that in the end, each person amounts to less than a water droplet in an infinite ocean. Cioran is less interested than Camus in evaluating alternative lifestyles in terms of their respective normative advantages, and he is not particularly concerned with what is morally good. He does, however, remain focused upon what is true, in the sense of living a life that is true to the hard facts. And central to this investigation of existential truth, is Cioran’s interest in discovering ways to endure what he believes to be an agonizing human condition. In this respect, his philosophical and existential intentions are comparable to Nietzsche’s.

When Cioran ascribes a positive value to human situations, this is usually in reference to those conditions under which we can experience insight into the nature of existence, and he attends to extraordinary states of mind that are comparable to what Camus describes as ‘lucidity.’ What is notable about Cioran’s approach in general, is his more Romanticist–Bergsonian disinclination towards rationalistic philosophical efforts to capture the essence of things within a well- organized conceptual system, not to mention his distinctively Nietzschean emphasis on the proposition that the apprehension of truth involves pain. We encounter the former attitude in the following excerpt from On the Heights of Despair (1934), written when Cioran was twenty-two years old:

I like thought which preserves a whiff of flesh and blood, and I prefer a thousand times an idea rising from sexual tension or nervous depression to an empty abstraction. Haven’t people learned yet that the time of super- ficial intellectual games is over, that agony is infinitely more important than syllogism, that a cry of despair is more revealing than the most subtle thought, and that tears always have deeper roots than smiles?

We find here accentuated, the importance of being in touch with one’s bodily energies and emotional experiences as a way to gain access to the more authentic dimensions of experience. This orientation locates Cioran’s thought within a tradition of thinkers who emphasize the importance of non-rational forces at the basis of things – a tradition that extends through the German romanticism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, through the works of Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, and the surrealists. In various ways, each of these theorists or cultural movements emphasizes, as does Cioran, feelings and instinctual energies over intellect and reflection.

Cioran’s theorizing nonetheless precipitates some paradox. He repeatedly acknowledges that life is meaningless, and yet he maintains that one should experience one’s deepest subjectivity in order to grasp what is true. This truth is not the recognition that life is meaningless; it is the truth associated with a rich spiritual life and with life’s abundant inner glow:

Those who write under the spell of inspiration, for whom thought is an expression of their organic nervous disposition, do not concern them- selves with unity and systems. Such concerns, contradictions, and facile paradoxes indicate an impoverished and insipid personal life. Only great and dangerous contradictions betoken a rich spiritual life because only they constitute a mode of realization for life’s abundant inner flow. People who know only a few spiritual states and never live on the edge do not have contradictions, because their limited resources cannot form oppositions. But how can those who violently experience hatred, despair, chaos, nothingness, or love, who burn with each passion and gradually die with each and in each, those who can only breathe on heights, who are always alone, especially when they are with others – how can they grow in linear fashion and crystallize into a system? All that is form, system, category, frame, or plan tends to make things absolute and springs from a lack of inner energy, from a sterile spiritual life. Life’s great tensions verge on chaos and the madness of exaltation. Rich spiritual life must know chaos and the effervescent paroxysm of illness, because in them inspiration appears to be essential for creation and contradictions become expressions of high inner temperatures. Nobody who does not love chaos is a creator, and whoever is contemp- tuous of illness must not speak of the spirit. There is value only in that which bursts forth from inspiration, which springs up from the irra- tional depths of our being, from the secret center of our subjectivity.

In Cioran, we encounter a markedly polarized consciousness that alternates in perspective between an extreme objective and an extreme subjective stand- point. Sometimes he stands outside of himself imaginatively, impersonally, and detatchedly, observing his activities from a long and very cool distance away in time or space. From this standpoint, he contemplates his personal meaning- lessness in view of his being not more than a speck of dust in the wider scheme of things. And sometimes, in sharp contrast, Cioran becomes absorbed in his individual subjectivity, experiencing his personal agony, chaos, strong organic energies, violent emotions, and the irrational depths of his being.

From the latter standpoint, Cioran speaks of the value of having a rich spir- itual life, of experiencing ecstasy, and experiencing how the (Bergsonian) flow of subjective life is absolute.  And, as he states above, if subjective life is absolute, then it is a source of value. More specifically, Cioran identifies the experience of suffering as an expression of what is absolute within subjective life:

Is there an objective criterion for evaluating suffering? Who can say with precision that my neighbor suffers more than I do or that Jesus suffered more than all of us? There is no objective standard because suffering cannot be measured according to the external stimulation or local irri- tation of the organism, but only as it is felt and reflected in consciousness. Alas, from this point of view, any hierarchy is out of the question. Each person remains with his own suffering, which he believes absolute and unlimited. How much would we diminish our own personal suffering if we were to compare it to all the world’s sufferings until now, to the most horrifying agonies and the most complicated tortures, the most cruel deaths and the most painful betrayals, all the lepers, all those burned alive or starved to death? … Each subjective existence is absolute to itself. For this reason each man lives as if he were the center of the universe or the center of history. Then how could his suffering fail to be absolute? I cannot understand another’s suffering in order to diminish my own. Comparisons in such cases are irrelevant, because suffering is an interior state, in which nothing external can help.

Here, Cioran is reluctant to draw comparisons between his own suffering and the suffering of others, and this contrasts revealingly to the perspective he assumes when he takes a more objective or distanced standpoint upon himself. In this more objective mode, Cioran counts himself as only one among a few billion people, and as being virtually insignificant. When contemplating his experience of suffering, though, he refuses to measure his individual sufferings, even against the combined sufferings of humanity, and he does not conclude that his own suffering is a trivial matter. Rather, he maintains the opposite, stating that each subjective existence is absolute to itself and that with regard to the quality of anyone’s individual suffering, comparisons are irrelevant.

Cioran explicitly recognizes this perspectival duality and tension within himself and within others, and he reflects upon his experience of suffering in the larger scheme of things:

Although I feel that my tragedy is the greatest in history – greater than the fall of empires – I am nevertheless aware of my total insignificance. I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only real existence. If I had to choose between the world and me, I would reject the world, its lights and laws, unafraid to glide alone in absolute nothingnes Although life for me is torture, I cannot renounce it, because I do not believe in the absolute values in whose name I would sacrifice myself. If I were to be totally sincere, I would say that I do not know why I live and why I do not stop living. The answer probably lies in the irrational character of life which remains itself without reason.

From the objective standpoint wherein one regards oneself from afar, expe- rience loses its meaning;150  from the subjective standpoint, wherein one iden- tifies strongly with one’s living presence, experience gains infinite meaning. Cioran acknowledges that both perspectives exist side-by-side within each person, and he observes that this co-presence of conflicting perspectives adds another dimension to the absurdity and incomprehensibility of human exis- tence, for as the two perspectives work against each other, a person is led to experience himself or herself as a fundamentally divided and contradictory being. In Hegelian terms, one could refer to Cioran’s position as that of the ‘unhappy’ or religious consciousness who is torn inwardly between identifying with a small, perishable, and trivial physical form, and identifying with a consciousness that can experience such ecstatic states of awareness that can be described as ‘absolute’ or as ‘divine.’

In contrast to the respective ways in which Sartre and Camus understand the nature of life’s absurdity, Cioran’s thought locates absurdity within the very nature of human consciousness. For Sartre, absurdity resides in a material world (in the ‘in itself ’) that resists all efforts to comprehend it fully. For Camus, absurdity resides in the conflict between a person’s desires and a world that frustrates those desires. For Cioran, the absurdity of human existence does not issue mainly from the objective standpoint; it issues from the more penetrating fact that humans harbor both the objective and the subjective standpoints within themselves, and feel themselves to be contradictory beings to the extent that these two standpoints are experienced as being irrecon- cilable. The absurdity of human existence resides in how one realizes that, in a physical sense, one is only a miniscule and mechanical part of the material universe, while feeling at the same time, from the standpoint of one’s living consciousness, that one is located at the conscious center of existence.

The value of sickness: Cioran, Nietzsche, and Buddhism

We have noted how Cioran and Nietzsche differ with respect to their evalua- tions of the value of life, and can see how Cioran is more akin to the more life- disconfirming Arthur Schopenhauer than to the life-confirming Nietzsche in this regard. So it is surprising to hear the American intellectual, Susan Sontag, claim that Nietzsche had already expressed Cioran’s position, and that for the most part, Cioran is not an original thinker. Although we clearly owe a debt to Sontag for having brought Cioran’s work to wider English-speaking notice during the 1960s, it is important to reconsider her assessment. To appreciate Cioran’s immediate differences from Nietzsche, we can briefly contrast his views with Nietzsche’s concerning the value of sickness.

Nietzsche famously equated sickness with weakness and degeneration, and he accordingly developed a philosophy that highlighted maximal health. Such was the inspiration for his maximalized figure of the Übermensch, or Superhuman, who, like a mighty ocean that absorbs a muddy stream without becoming unclean itself, has the power to absorb and transcend any psycho- logical difficulty, any poisonous and potentially debilitating force, to ‘make good’ from it and to come out stronger and more healthy as a result. In short, Nietzsche’s philosophy is therapeutically aimed to combat various kinds of sickness, either physical, psychological, or social. In themselves, Nietzsche found minimal value in conditions of sickness and weakness.

Cioran takes an opposing stance on the matter, for he notes that when we are very ill and come close to experiencing death, we can also come closer to seeing the truth of our existential situation. When close to death, for example, we are in a position to experience the falling away of many previous illusions, to see how what seemed to be permanent is in fact transient, and to realize how our previous day-to-day feeling that we were going to live into the future for an indefinite period, was a false expectation. When one is near death, one can also come to believe that the ever-present moment is the only moment one has. In his doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, Nietzsche also expresses the importance of living in the moment, believing also that a Superhuman type would take death-defying risks and live dangerously. But he does not positively centralize the experience of sickness in this theorizing, insofar as he does not regard the very condition of being sick as one wherein an authentic awareness of human being can be experienced. Consider in contrast the following, non- Nietzschean excerpts where Cioran speaks of the positive value of sickness:

Only sickness gives birth to serious and deep feelings. Whatever is not born out of sickness has only an aesthetic value. To be ill means to live, willingly or not, on the heights of despair. But such heights presuppose deep chasms, fearful precipices – to live on the heights means to live near the abyss. One must fall in order to reach the heights.
If illnesses have a philosophical mission in the world, then it can only be to prove how illusory is the feeling of life’s eternity and how fragile its illusion of finality. In illness, death is always already in life. Genuine ailment links us to metaphysical realities which the healthy, average man cannot understand. Young people talk of death as external to life. But when an illness hits them with full power, all the illusions and seductions of youth disappear.

Unlike Nietzsche, Cioran believes that conditions of excessive health perpetuate the illusion that death is far away. So whereas one can characterize Nietzsche as a philosopher of health and Eternal Recurrence, one can equally describe Cioran as a philosopher of sickness, decay, and death, and as someone who reaches a level of enlightenment about the human condition as a conse- quence of his continual contemplation of death. In this regard, Cioran is more Buddhistic than he is Nietzschean, although all three thinkers were struck by the transitoriness of existence and grounded much of their respective thought upon this apprehension.

Cioran’s view also contrasts with Buddhistic outlooks, however, for neither is he convinced that we can secure any permanent peace of mind amidst the world’s suffering, nor does he believe that this is desirable. For Cioran, there is no genuine salvation, either in this world or in another world. Some of this attitude can be traced to Cioran’s own feelings of being continually out of place, forever looking for something else and forever trying to be someone else:

In continual rebellion against my ancestry, I have spent my whole life wanting to be something else: Spanish, Russian, cannibal – anything, except what I was. It is an aberration to want to be different from what you are, to espouse in theory any and every other condition, except your own.
All my life, I have lived with the feeling that I have been kept from  my true place. If the expression ‘metaphysical exile’ had no meaning, my existence alone would afford it one.

In Buddhistic terms, Cioran can be described as a thinker who believed that, during life, there is no escape or redemption from the ever-turning wheel of life – the cycle of suffering that is based upon desire, upon the self-reinforcing cycle of violence and retribution, upon ignorance of the fact that all things are transitory and perishable, and upon the failure to appreciate that clinging to perishable things is a futile enterprise. Cioran recognizes the perishability of all things, and yet he cannot find any contentment, if only because his consciousness is permeated with dissatisfaction.

One can account for Cioran’s dissatisfaction in reference to his personal feelings of homelessness and exile cited above, but one can also note that the feeling of harboring within oneself the contradiction of being both dust and divine, of being both objectively insignificant, and subjectively absolute, generates a perpetually uneasy and oscillating state of mind. We have seen how Sartre’s theory of consciousness leads to a comparably unhappy conclusion. For Sartre, human consciousness is a kind of existence that projects beyond itself, is never coincident with itself, and is therefore essentially frustrated in its attempts to find itself. Cioran’s own understanding of consciousness – one where human consciousness is constituted by opposing subjective and objective perspectives – resonates well with Sartre’s account, for it has the same frustrating implica- tions. In both, the subjective and objective perspectives cannot coincide, which yields an absurdity and impossibility for achieving peace of mind. Which is to say that for Sartre and for Cioran, a Buddhistic and Schopenhauerian tranquillity is out of the question, and human beings are condemned to be eternal wanderers who are lost in a futile search for themselves.

The place of Emil Cioran in twentieth-century French thought

Cioran develops absurdist themes from Sartre and Camus to a greater extreme, and he agrees with Sartre’s existentialist view that our presence in the world is an incomprehensible, meaningless, and contingent matter, and that human existence is fundamentally unsatisfactory. Cioran also intensifies the Sartrean theme that ‘hell is other people’ by rendering it into a virtue: he asserts that ‘we are here to make each other wretched, and that to rebel against this state of affairs is to undermine the very foundations of  communal life.’ And in sympathy with Camus, Cioran philosophizes frequently from the standpoint of considering the world from afar, from the position where the entirety of human existence is reduced to an infinitesimal moment in endless time.

In a number of ways, though, Cioran is more intensely nihilistic and hopeless than either Sartre or Camus, since as modes of existential relief, Sartre offers us the godlike awareness of our unbounded freedom and Albert Camus, almost like a samurai warrior, offers us the glory of fighting a heroic, albeit losing, battle against time and death. Cioran recognizes states of intense ecstasy, but these are always short-lived, and are counterbalanced by each of us being nonetheless only one person amidst several billion. Cioran is also less moralistic than either of the other two, and he says straightforwardly that if he followed his natural inclination, he ‘should blow up the world.’  Cioran also does not refrain from referring to himself as someone who is torn between violence and disillusionment, and who seems to himself to be ‘a terrorist who, going out in the street to perpetuate some outrage, stops on the way to consult Ecclesiastes or Epictetus.’  In offensive and outrageous attitude, he compares with how Nietzsche was during his own time, for Cioran intends to please no one.

Moreover, there are stylistic differences between Sartre, Camus, and Cioran, for the latter employs an abundance of religious imagery and phrase- ology to express his strong nihilistic tendencies. Cioran, in the spirit of Schopenhauer, who was yet another Unhappy Consciousness, is an atheist who nonetheless refers to the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, Buddhism, Christian mysticism, Hasidism, the Kabbala, the Zohar, the Talmud, and the Bible, along with a series of contemporary writers. He embodies a religious sentiment that survives his nihilism, and he continues to search for meaning, while being almost completely convinced that the search is hopeless.

Once again, we can appreciate this dual sentiment by recalling Cioran’s polarized characterization of human consciousness cited above: ‘I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only real existence.’ The bulk of Cioran’s remarks are expressed from the standpoint that when measured in physical terms, he is virtually nothing, even though there is a residual undercurrent of religiosity and mysticism that appears in many of the writers he chooses to contemplate. Which is to say that according to Cioran’s view, as long as one is alive, there remains this mystery of how such a tiny speck of dust – the conscious and reflective human being – has the capacity to reflect within itself the infinite universe, as it gazes upon the stars and surveys the expanse of time. This fact alone offers an ineradicable glimmer of hope against the nihilism that tends to predominate within Cioran’s reflections.

We can thus approach Cioran as someone who appreciated the human existential condition, and who was captivated by the nihilistic side of human awareness. We can also regard him as a kind of ‘existential mystic’ in less frequent moments – someone more in league with the angst-ridden Kierkegaard, than with either the Nietzsche of joyful wisdom or the compas- sionate Buddha – who introduced into twentieth-century French thought, a more intense appreciation of the Bergsonian flow of time through one’s consciousness. He stands in the tradition of thinkers who focus upon the phenomenology of time-consciousness, as he elevated his experience of the present moment into a kind of religious ecstatic agony, reminiscent of the experiences of St. Theresa of Avila (1515–82) – one of the two women with whom Cioran felt the greatest spiritual kinship.

Selected works of E. M. Cioran

1934 (age 23): Pe culmile dispera6rii [On the Heights of Despair] 1937 (age 26): Lacrimi¸si Sfinti [Tears and Saints]

1949 (age 38): Précis de décomposition [A Short History of Decay] 1956 (age 45): La tentation d’exister [The Temptation to Exist] 1960 (age 49): Histoire et utopie [History and Utopia]

1971 (age 60): Ecartèlement [Drawn and Quartered]

1973 (age 62): De l’inconvénient d’être né [The Trouble With Being Born] 1986 (age 75): Exercices d’admiracion/aveux et anathémes [Anathemas and Admirations]

WICKS, Robert, Modern French Philosophy. From Existentialism to Postmodernism. Oxford: One World, 2003.

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