“Cioran: The Temptation to Believe” (Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston)

English edition of Tears and Saints (Chicago University Press, 1995)

The “death of the author” is a notion I have never become used to. Time and again, when I open the pages of an engaging book, the “dead” author comes back to haunt me: as if reading were a spell that brings him back, his hovering spirit is always before my mind’s eye. And while reading, the desire to capture this spirit, to know him, “to be him” takes possession of me. I cannot read without imagining the “dead” author back to life.

E. M. Cioran is an author that wants imagining more than others. As a writer, he is particularly well versed in the game of making and unmaking authorial fictions in his texts, a game complicated by the fact that in real life he has had two lives, two identities, two authorial voices: the Romanian Cioran of the 1930s and the French Cioran—much better known—of the 1970s and 1980s. I began imagining Cioran when I translated his first Romanian book, On the Heights of Despair (Bucharest, 1954; University of Chicago Press, 1990. Now, having translated another of his Romanian books, Tears and Saints, published in Bucharest in 1937 shortly after he had left Romania for Paris never to return, I find myself again caught up in the skein of imagination, while the tantalizing question endures: Who is this man?

Erased from history as a nonperson in Communist Romania, little known in the West outside elite intellec-tual circles, Cioran eludes me yet again in his final tragic illness. This master of style can speak now only with his eyes. There is a cruel poetic justice in this, for the mysti-cal experience he meditated on in Tears and Saints places great emphasis on the eye, on seeing the invisible, on acquiring intimate knowledge of a different, nonempirical reality. Since the very notion of a mystical language is paradoxical—only silence can encompass the infinite and the invisible—it may be appropriate that Cioran should now be silent, or speak with his eyes. Like his saints, Cioran is now wholly an outsider. He has always been one in various ways, but his transition to another “twilight zone” is now total and irrevocable. His intense green eyes are like pools of otherworldly luminosity. I looked into them last summer as I told him about my detective work on his saints, how hard it was to crack some of them down—some, in fact, I never did. I wanted to know why he had chosen such a recondite subject to write about. Lately, saints and angels have become quite fashionable, but I couldn’t help wondering whether there was anyone in the I93os as familiar with these saintly figures as Cioran was. He listened to me as if from afar, his eyes lit up with amused mischief, his lips sealed. Cioran has already removed himself from this world of confusion, leaving in our hands the multi-colored coat of his writings to puzzle over. My author is not dead, he has only made his escape into another world, and there he lives to tantalize his reader, to tease, to challenge, to spur her on. Henceforth I shall follow him, the reader in search of the author. Where will I find him first?

Romania, mid-1930s. A passionate young man, already known as a flamboyant writer in a new generation of intellectuals, Cioran spends hours in a Transylvanian library in his hometown, Sibiu, poring over the lives of saints. A modern-day hagiographer, he has “dreamt” himself “the chronicler of these [saints’] falls between heaven and earth, the intimate knower of the ardors in their hearts, the historian of God’s insomniacs.” The question naturally arises: why would a healthy, normal young man, who confesses his love of life openly, who is politically active, want to become a “heavenly interloper” spying on the saints’ secrets? A partial answer may be found in a passage from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:

The mightiest men have hitherto always bowed reverently before the saint, as the enigma of self-subjugation and utter voluntary privation—why did they thus bow? They divined in him… the superior force which wished to test itself by such a subjugation; the strength of will, in which they recognized their own strength and love of power, and knew how to honour it: they honoured something in themselves when they honoured the saint. In addition to this, the contemplation of the saint suggested to them a suspicion: such an enormity of self-negation and anti-naturalness will not have been coveted for nothing. . . . In a word, the mighty ones of the world learned to have a new fear before him, they divined a new power, a strange, still unconquered enemy:—it was the “Will to Power” which obliged them to halt before the saint. They had to question him. (56)

Nietzsche’s insight is confirmed by Cioran, who on the first page of Tears and Saints spells out the reason for his interest in saints in the form of a question his book promises to explore: “How does a man renounce himself and take the road to sainthood?” In the saints’ ability to renounce the world, Cioran detects their “will to power”: saintliness, he writes, is “imperialistic,” it “interests me for the delirium of self-aggrandizement hidden beneath its meekness, its will to power masked by goodness.” Clearly fascinated by this will to power in a political world torn by extreme claims, from fascism to communism, Cioran nonetheless regards it with an awe tinged by ironic skepticism. He looks upon saints as partial alter egos, devout existentialists who “live in flames” while “wise men live next to them.” His relationship to them as it develops in the book is one of both love and hatred. “I love saints for their passionate naiveté,” he writes at one point. His love for the saints has a shade of decadent aestheticism in it: “we no longer believe in them. We only admire their illusions.” However, such dandified love is counterbalanced by a vigorous and virulent hatred. He confesses many tumes that he hates the saints for the habit of hopeless suffering that they bequeathed to us, since suffering “can’t be anything but futile and satanic.” I How could one not hate saints, angels, and God? . . . Heaven irritates me, as Christian disguise drives me to despair.”

Tears and Saints is a meditation on saintliness, but not saintliness of the usual type. That is, not the martyrs and heroes of traditional hagiography, worshiped for their virtues, but rather the mystics famous for their high degree of spirituality, their intimate personal knowledge of God, who brought about a new “eruption of the absolute into history.” The title, Tears and Saints, refers to what is known in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church as the “gift of tears.” The Dictionnaire de la spiritualité describes “the gift of tears” as “a complex phenomenon consisting of certain spiritual feelings and their concrete manifestation.” It cites three categories of holy tears: penitential tears (purifying rears of fear and regret), tears of love (or grace), and tears of compassion wept for the Passion of Christ. Starting with Francis of Assisi in the early thirteenth century, the latter kind became predominant.

The tears of pity for the suffering Christ, to which Cioran alludes repeatedly in his text, are a characteristic feature of Western European mysticism. Mysticism is “a movement towards an object outside the limits of empirical experience.” It is also a “direct and passive ex-perience of God’s presence” (Dictionnaire de la spiritualité). This “movement” is an escape—through prayer, medi-tation and contemplation—from the here and now. It aims at reunion with God, and it is centered on the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption because the humanity of Christ is perceived as mediation between man and God. Through sympathetic identification with the suffering Christ, one is redeemed from one’s “fallen” state and reunited with God, thereby partaking of his divinity. Tears were perceived as a sign of grace, the external manifestation of God’s presence in the human heart. Many descriptions of this gift insist on its ineffable sweetness. Cioran puts a twist on mystical discourse from the very beginning, since for him tears are not sweet but bitter: “As I searched for the origin of tears, I thought of the saints. Could they be the source of tears’ bitter light?”

The saints in Cioran’s title belong to a new class of saints, mostly lay and mostly female, called “mystics,” “spirituels,” “contemplatifs,” or “alumbrados.” Their approach to the Christian faith is antitheological and antiinstitutional, based solely on intuition and sentiment. Many of the names in this book, Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, have left classic works of Western European mystical literature, but there are many more minor and unusual figures as well. In Tears and Saints, Cioran subsumes mystics under the name of saints. Since for him mystics are apolitical, passive contemplators of divinity, he prefers to call them saints. Saints, he writes, are politicians—though “failed” ones, because they deny appearances: pragmatic men and women of action, whose acts of charity express their love of humankind. Indeed, many of the European mystics were active reformers, serious players in the game of European politics (Catherine of Siena, for example, played a political role in bringing the pope back to Rome from Avignon). And all of them—many belonging to the mendicant orders—were dedicated to charity work in the world outside the monastery walk, assiduously tending the poor and the ill.

European mysticism is a religious movement with political overtones. It is marked by a strong spirit of reform, which developed in the margins of—and often at odds with—the official institution of the Catholic Church, which these saintly persons perceived as degraded and corrupt, no longer capable of caring fully for the spiritual needs of the population. Historically, it covers several centuries and several Western European countries, from its inception (with Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century), to its vigorous expansion at the end of the thirteenth century in Germany and Holland and then into Italy, through its apogee in sixteenth-century Spain, and its final afterglow in seventeenth-century France just before the Age of Reason. Although it spans many centuries, European mysticism is, as Michel de Certeau observes in The Mystic Fable, a “borderline” phenomenon, occurring on the threshold of modernity, at a time when unified Christian Europe is disintegrating, strong secular states are formed, and the bases of new sciences and arts are set. Thus “the ambition of a Christian radicalism [is] traced on a background of decadence or ‘corruption; within a uni-verse that is falling apart and must be repaired” (Certeau, 14). Faced with the breakdown of the Christian faith and “the humiliation of the Christian tradition,” the mystics rise to fight for the restoration of true faith. For example, Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross were reformers of their orders. They thus formed a “Christian radicalism,” verging on heresy, “wavet[ing] between ecstasy and revolt” (Certeau, 24).

Cioran explicitly focuses on the political element in the saints’ lives, but in his view their charitable deeds represent the least interesting aspect of their lives. What fascinates him are their tears, their thirst for pain and their capacity to endure it: in short, the pathology or, as he puts it, the “voluptuousness of suffering,” for “suffering is man’s only biography.” Behind this suffering, and their uncanny ability to renounce everything through ascetic practices, Cioran detects the saints’ fanatical will to power.

Saints’ writings are often titled “Dialogues” because they are presented in the form of a dialogue with God, “conversar con Dios” as Teresa of Avila called it. In his  analysis of mystical discourse, Certeau observes that a main feature of the saints’ writings is the initial assertion of will, the opening “volo,” “I want,” which is both ecstatic, signifying a decision to escape, and ascetic, signifying a decision to lose (Certeau, 229). This act of willing, “vouloir,” is at the same time an act of power. pouvoir,” writes Certeau. He cites one of the classics of mysticism, Meister Eckhart, who said: “With the will I can do everything,” and “what I want to have, I have” (Certeau, 170). But what do the saints want to possess and control? “Their space to conquer is the sky, their weapon suffering,” says Cioran. The saints’ “will to power” has no object in particular. They want to own Infinity (“the sky”) and God: i.e., they want an absence, for, as Baudelaire once remarked, “God is the only being who, in order to rule, does not even need to exist.” Thus inner space is the region in which the will reigns supreme, enjoying an autonomy that does not depend on object or circumstance (Certeau, 235-36), and the heart or the soul is the stage on which the mystical drama is enacted as, for example, in Teresa of Avila’s Las moradas.

It is this fanatical but also gratuitous will to power, to know and to love, or to know through love—directed at all and at the same time at nothing. i.e., God—that engrosses Cioran’s attention in Tears and Saints. But whereas for the saints God is meaningful nothingness, for Cioran, as for Nietzsche, “God is dead,” and nothingness is devoid of meaning. Thus the book is a critique of this will to power which reaps nothing but empty and cruel suffering. It both reveals and rejects the political roots of sainthood, and finally inscribes itself in the psychological or aesthetic sphere since saints are, after all, “failed politicians,” who stubbornly deny the world of appearances.

Nonetheless, to speak of the saints’ “will to power” does uncover a political aspect of their existential religious experience, and brings the question of politics in this book sharply into focus. That is why the historical context of the production and publication of Tears and Saints is important. The book appeared soon after Cioran’s departure for Paris in 1937, the year in which he also published his most radical and overtly political book, Romania’s Transfiguration. The two contemporaneous books form an interesting pair: one, a metacritical discourse on mysticism, the other a political tract couched in the rhetoric of mysticism. Tears and Saints was published at Cioran’s own expense after his publisher, halfway into the printing process, became aware of the shocking nature of the text and refused to bring it out. Cioran has told me how he had to leave the press with the galley proofs in a bag, carrying them through Bucharest in search of another publisher.

When it did appear, Tears and Saints caused a scandal. Written in short, aphoristic fragments, strongly reminiscent of Nietzsche both in form and in content, it is a discontinuous and iconoclastic philosophical discourse on mysticism. The aura of decadence that goes with the book’s anti-Christian, blasphemous tone was unheard of in Romania. But as Huysmans says of his decadent hero, Des Esseintes, in A Rebours, one must be a Catholic first in order to desecrate Catholicism. There is a strong Christian current stirring under the anti-Christian surface of Cioran’s prose. One must remember that Cioran was the son of an Orthodox priest, and therefore very familiar with the doctrines of the Christian faith. His younger brother in Romania recalls long nights spent around bottles of wine, during which Cioran argued intricate theological questions with his father and theologians from the seminary in Sibiu. According to his brother, Cioran’s chief obsessions at the time were theology and music, a fact confirmed by Cioran’s text—as always an exorcism of his obsessions—in which fine aphorisms on music intertwine with his musings on tears and saints.

As a discourse on spirituality, asceticism, and suffering for the love of Christ, Tears and Saints inscribes itself strongly in the historical, philosophical, and political discourses circulating in the Romania of the 1920s and 1930s. “Spirituality” was so much the talk of Romanian interwar culture that a leading journal, Criterion, devoted a long article to it in its “Dictionary” column, which tried to define the “principal ideas” of the period and establish their “circulation value.” In particular, the article identified “the problem of a ‘new spirituality” with that of the “new generation” to which Cioran belonged. As Nietzsche said, those interested in the figure of the saint are never ordinary but always the “mightiest men.” Cioran’s “young generation” of intellectuals was an elite group of strong-minded people, a generation driven by a sense of mission, namely, the regeneration of Romania. They saw themselves as representatives of a “new revolutionary spirituality” which, according to the Criterion article, both overlaps and at the same time rejects other types of spirituality present in contemporary Romanian culture: the traditional, orthodox spirituality of the charismatic philosophy professor and mentor of the new generation, Nae lonescu, or the more “cultural” and humanistic type of other young intellectuals such as Petru Comarnescu or Constantin Noica. Mircea Vulcanescu, the author of the Criterion article and himself a member of this generation, estimated that large numbers of young writers, “led by Mircea Bade,” embraced the new “agonic spirituality” whose main characteristics were “lucidity, negation, and a tragic doubt that wants itself invalidated by the revelation of a new type of man, yet to be born.”

This generation of intellectuals had political ties with the Legion of the Archangel Michael, later known as the Iron Guard, “a populist movement with strong mystical characteristics,” bent on bringing about “moral and spiritual change, ethnic ‘regeneration’ by returning to Orthodox Christian values, and ‘salvation’ through asceticism and sacrifice” (Volovici, 62). Cioran’s generation of young intellectuals was sympathetic to the Legionary movement because they believed it to be the only political means capable of triggering a “Christian revolution” that would lead to the creation of a Christian state. Against a background of extreme political corruption and economic deterioration, moved by a strong sense of an ending, caught between nostalgia for Paradise Lost and impatience for a New Jerusalem, these young, modern-day “saints” were animated by a desire to reform which, unfortunately, found its political counterpart in the fascistic Iron Guard.

It is fairly easy to trace the similarities between the historical conditions that gave rise to Western European mysticism and the mystical mania that swept Romania in the 1930s. Mutatis mutandis, both periods were characterized by an identity crisis and the responsibility to reform politically and spiritually. As Certeau puts it, there is in history a certain tendency towards coincidence between a “Machiavellian moment” and “the invasion of the mystics” (Certeau, 153). Thus “the task of producing a Republic or a State by political reason that would take the place of a defunct, illegible, divine order, in a way [was] paralleled by the task of founding places in which to hear the spoken Word that had become inaudible within corrupt institutions” (Certeau, 154). In fact, one could argue, as Certeau does, that European mysticism did not die in the seventeenth century but simply receded: “this phantom of a passage, repressed during periods secure in their knowledge, reappears in the gaps within scientific certainty, as if ever returning to its birthplace” (Certeau, 77-78). “Secure” and “certainty” are the key words here. Europe in the first half of the twentieth century was wrenched by momentous upheavals. In the tormented European political and intellectual context, Romania, probably more than any other country in Europe, given its political and eco-nomic coordinates, dramatically lacked certainty about itself and thus became fertile ground for a rebirth of mysticism in political garb.

It is in this intellectual and political context that Tears and Saints must be read, both as an expression of, and a reaction to, the spirit of the times. Its mystical frenzy, tempered by an irony verging on blasphemy, makes it stand apart, as it certainly did in its reviled and scandalous reception in Romania.

A closer look at Cioran’s other 1937 book, Romania’s Transfiguration, helps us to appreciate the distinct note struck by Tears and Saints in its historical context. Whereas the latter is a critique of mystical discourse, Romania’s Transfiguration borrows the rhetoric of mystical discourse and applies it to the realm of politics. The book is a political utopia dreaming of a “transfigured” or redeemed Romania, of a Romania capable of breaking its “subhistoric” destiny, and from a “secondhand country” becoming a “great culture.” In Tears and Saints, Cioran defines saintliness as the “overcoming of our condition as fallen creatures.” In mysticism, redemption and the saints’ will to possess God are in fact one and the same thing. That is why the formula for redemption need not remain confined to the spiritual domain easily be translated into political terms: the main and mystic’s spiritual union with God becomes a (small) nation’s fulfillment of a greater destiny: “Our entire political and spiritual mission must concentrate on the determination to will a transfiguration, on the desperate and dramatic experience of transforming our whole way of life” (Romania’s Transfiguration, 47).

In Romania’s Transfiguration, Cioran gives us his solution to Romania’s identity crisis: Romania will overcome its “fallen” historical condition as a “little culture” only when it is driven by a fanaticism equal to that of the saints. Here the mystical “will” is not objectless, it has a specific political content, and its stage is not the heart or the soul but history itself:

Romania is a prophetless country. . . This sobering thought should prompt us to be different, to burn with a blind fanaticism, to be illuminated by a new vision. . . . and the thought of another Romania should be our only thought. To persist in the same historical sequence is the equivalent of slow suicide. . . . We shall have to renounce our lucidity which reveals to us so many impossibilities, and, in a state of blindness, conquer the light. . . . (Romania’s Transfiguration, 49; emphasis added)

Couched in the mystical language of ecstatic visions, the will to bring about spiritual reform is coupled here with the will to achieve cultural greatness. To bring about this end, all means are justified in the eyes of the young Cioran, who sounds like a new Machiavelli, thus confirming Ccrteau’s insight that mysticism and Machiavellianism often coincide:

All means are legitimate when a people opens a road for itself in the world. Terror, crime, bestiality and perfidy are base and immoral only in decadence, when they defend a vacuum of content; if, on the other hand, they help in the ascension of a people, they are virtues. All triumphs are moral. . .  (Romania’s Transfiguration, 41)

Cioran’s Machiavelli knows his Nietzsche. The passage quoted echoes Beyond Good and Evil, where, comparing decadent to nondecadent historical periods, Nietzsche writes:

Certain strong and dangerous instincts, such as the love of enterprise, foolhardiness, revengefulness, astuteness, rapacity, and love of power, which up till then had not only to be honoured from the point of view of general utility—under other names, of course, than those given—but had to be fostered and cultivated (because they were perpetually required in the common danger against the common enemies), are now felt in their dangerousness to be doubly strong—when the outlets for them are lacking—and are gradually branded as immoral and given over to calumny. (Beyond Good and Evil, 124)

We are thus faced with an interesting intellectual situation: two books by the same author published in the same year, both suffused with mysticism, the one rabidly political, the other a critical analysis of the of mystical discourse. One might be tempted to say that while Tears and Saints is a philosohical dissertation on the mystical phenomenon, scrutinizing its political implications, Romania’s Transfiguration, its unfortunate political counterpart, is a rather crude practical application of mystical principles, very much in step with other politico-religious right-wing or left-wing discourses of the period. But Cioran’s ambiguous attitude towards mysticism in Tears and Saints shows that Romania’s Transfiguration is in his mind, at the very moment he is writing the latter, a political utopia, i.e., a “delirium of self-aggrandizement.” Its mystical overtones strongly contribute to its utopian, delirious character, which contradicts Cioran’s existential philosophy of skepticism and despair. In Tears and Saints, Cioran’s love-hate relationship with the mystic saints problematizes the simple and fanatical solution to Romania’s problems he offers in Romania’s Transfiguration. Thus Tears and Saints is in some ways Cioran’s philosophical struggle with himself, a text full of contradictions and ambiguities; appearing at the same time as Romania’s Transfiguration, and out of the same preoccupations, it reveals the shortcomings of his other, crudely naive political text, and thereby undermines it.

Many of the themes in Tears and Saints are ones to which Cioran will return again and again in his later, mature writings: music, spirituality, suffering, death, solitude, doubt, despair, decadence, God, and nothingness. As a discourse on mysticism, Tears and Saints is neither mystical discourse nor objective, impersonal philosophical discourse. Generically, it resembles Nietzsche hybrid philosophical commentary. The free and easy colloquial and lyrical style, studded with striking metaphors, and the personal, intimate, alternately tongue-in-cheek and vehement tones mask the extent of the text’s erudition, its “bookishness,” as well as the accuracy and seriousness of its commentary on the mystical phenomenon. The ambiguous, often paradoxical nature of Tears and Saints originates in its fundamental oscillation between two opposite drives, the intense longing to believe with passion and abandon—an attitude also informing Romania’s Transfiguration—and the passion of disbelief, i.e., of despair.

The book’s central figure is Cioran’s “failed mystic,” “the one who cannot cast off all temporal ties.” Thus he writes that “the secret of successful mysticism is the defeat of time and individuation,” but also “I can’t help hearing a death knell ringing in eternity: therein lies my quarrel with mysticism”—anticipating Derrida’s Glas by almost half a century. The “failed mystic” is a strikingly grotesque character: “the passion of the absolute in the soul of a skeptic is like an angel grafted on a leper.” He belongs to the same family of existential outcasts, forever wandering in the no-man’s-land stretching between history and eternity, as Unamuno’s martyr, Manuel Bueno, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, or Genet’s “criminal saint.”

There is no redemption for Cioran’s failed mystic. While the successful mystics praise as the apogee of ecstasy the moment in which they feel alone with God, what St. John of the Cross calls “soledad en Dios,” Cioran complains that he cannot feel “at home in God,” that he is a perpetual “exile in Him.” For the “successful” mystic, God is the object of desire, the target of his will to power, but for Cioran, no matter h hard he strives to love and to believe in a mystical way: his fervor is always undermined by doubt and despair. He is haunted by Nietzsche’s “God is dead” (or as Cioran more humorously puts it, God is “a Universal absentee”). He unmasks the saints’ unforgivable naiveté: they “have never asked themselves the question ‘what begins after God?’ and for that I cannot forgive them.” The despair of this failed mystic—”My God without it out you I’m mad, and with you I shall go mad!”—as well as his existential doubts—”my doubts cannot take me farther than the shadow of His heart”—are mixed in with a touch of bravado, a romantic, Luciferian pose. Our role, he says, is to amuse a lonely God, we are “poor clowns of the absolute.” But he refused to play his part in God’s entertainment piece, in a daring act of “rejection of God sprung from agonic frenzy”: “I, with my solitude, stand up to God.”

Centered on the figure of the failed mystic, Cioran’s discourse on mysticism is a sort of self-consciously blasphemous parody of mystical discourse. The voice of the faithless mystic introduces a new perspective, that of despair, and thus gives a new accent to the mystical experience, deliberately and perversely distorting its meanings. For example, “paradise from the view point of despair” becomes “a graveyard of happiness.” In the mystical experience, meditation and prayer are important steps towards God, but for Cioran they are exactly the opposite: “one must think of God day and night in order to wear him out, to turn him into a cliché.” For the mystics, life in God is the only true life: for Ciran, it is “the death of being.”

The most frequent target of his attack, however, is a key aspect of mysticism: suffering, the mutation of the Man-God’s agonistic passion as the only means to reach the divine. The mystic’s suffering has as Its goal redemption, i.e., to achieve perfection in divinity. Cioran, however, approaches suffering from an aesthetic rather than ethical point of view since it is the “voluptuousness of suffering,” not its virtues, that fascinates him. He sees suffering as essential to the tragic human condition—”suffering is man’s only biography”—and as aimless, since it does not hold out the promise of redemption inherent in Christian notions of suffering, carried to extremes by mysticism. Suffering, behind which Cioran detected the will to power, is ineffectual, it achieves nothing except more senseless and cruel suffering. There is no room for redemption in a world in which, “since the creation of consciousness, God has appeared in his true light as one more nothingness.” The despair of the failed mystic, bereft of his greatest hope, and overcome by what Unamuno called “el sentimiento tragico de la vida”, takes the form of Nietzschean attacks on Christianity. In these attacks, Cioran’s voice is by turns virulent and ironic: “I dont know any bigger sin than that of Jesus”; “the ultimate cruelty was that of Jesus: leaving an inheritance of bloodstains on the cross”; Jesus, “the bloodthirsty and cruel” Christ, was “lucky to have died young. Had he lived to be sixty, he would have given its his memoirs in-stead of the cross.” In a passage that recalls past catastrophes caused by excesses in the history of Christianity, and also anticipates the excesses that will be soon carried out in his own country, Cioran, fascinated with sacred violence and suffering, writes, decades before Georges Bataille’s Larmes d’Eros or René Girard’s Violence and the sacred, that “Christianity delights in the sight of bloodstains, its martyrs have transformed the world into a bloodbath. In this religion of blazing twillights, evil defeats the sublime.”

If the mystical formula ultimately fails for Cioran in the spiritual domain, it follows that its political counterpart is also doomed to fail. Could this man of so many doubts and shadows have been doing anything else but raving in a fit of impotent rage or a “delirium of self-aggrandizement” when he wrote Romania’s Transfiguration? Could he, like Unamuno’s failed saint, Manuel Bueno, have been preaching that in which he himself cannot believe? If Romania’s Transfiguration tried to offer a solution to Romania’s existential and political problems, its contemporary counterpart, Tears and Saints, reveals the other side of the coin, namely, that there are no solutions where there is only honest, despairing doubt. Thus through Tears and Saints we gain a perspective on Cioran’s complex and divided mind exactly at the time he was writing his most outrageous political tract:

the soul of those haunted by God is like a depraved spring, littered with half-withered flowers and rotten buds, swept by foul odors. It is the soul of blackmailing saints . . . and of anti-Christian Christians such as Nietzsche. I regret that I’m not Judas to betray God and know remorse.

In the Romania of the 1930s, Cioran’s young soul was haunted by two absolutes, neither of which he believe in. Given this situation, his next step seems inevitable: if not suicide, then self-exile. In 1937, a few months before the publication of Tears and Saints, he left Bucharest and never returned. When we next hear of him, in Paris in 1949, the year of his first French book, Précis de dicomposition, he has cast off both his Romanian language and identity, and yielded to a long-cherished obsession: to be a man from nowhere.


I thank E. M. Cioran for allowing me to translate yet another one of his books, and Mme Simone Boui for many long and lovely Parisian evenings when I imbibed the Cioranian spirit at leisure. For dedicated and inspired editing, I thank my husband, Kenneth R. Johnston.
This translation was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and from Indiana University (Office of Research and Graduate Development, Russian and Eastern Institute, and West European Studies).

Note on the Text

This translation aims at capturing the spirit of Cioran’s original Romanian, not a literal, word-for-word accu-racy. Principally, this has meant a trimming of Cioran’s youthful prose, mainly those passages that sound florid at redundant in English. However, this English translation, unlike an earlier French version which was drastically cut by the author, restores Cioran’s texts to its original length.

Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston


Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles. Oeuvres Complètes. Paris: Galimmard, 1975.

Cioran, E. M. Schimbarea la Fata a Romaniei (Romania’s Transfiguration). Bucharest: Vremea, 1937.

De Certeau, Michel. The Mystic Fable, trans. Michael B. Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Helen Zimern. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964.

Volovici, Leon. Nationalist Ideology and Anti-Semitism: the cam Romanian Intellectuals in the 1930s. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1991.

Vulcanescu, Mircea, “Spiritualitate.” Criterion (Bucharest): I November 1934.

Dictionnaire de la spiritualité ascetique et mystique. Paris: Beauchesne, 1976.


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