“An Unheard-of Reflection On (Against) The Image by Emil Cioran” – Leobardo VILLEGAS; Rodrigo MENEZES

An enigmatic text, mostly unheard-of by even the most knowledgeable experts in the matter of Cioran, is among the selected writings that compose Contra la Historia [Against History], a collection of aphorisms and essays edited by Esther Seligson, with the purpose of diffusing Cioran’s writings in the Spanish-speaking world when his books were just starting to see the light of the Spanish translation.

Born in Mexico, Esther Seligson (25 October 1941 – 8 February 2010) was one of Cioran’s Spanish translators (alongside Fernando Savater), besides an epistolary correspondent and a faraway friend in Mexico. She was a Mexican writer, poet, translator, and historian, of Jewish heritage. Seligson was a multifaceted intellectual (much like Susana Soca, in Uruguay) whose works covered a wide range of interests, such as the arts, cultural history, philosophy, and particularly Jewish philosophy, mythology, religion, and theater. She wrote books of poems and short stories. As an acknowledgement of her literary contributions and achievements, she won the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize, in 1973, and the Magda Donato Award, in 1989.[1]

Esther Seligson (25 October 1941 – 8 February 2010)

According to Leobardo Villegas Mariscal, Mexican philosopher and professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas (UAZ-Mexico), Seligson first translated in 1981 History and Utopia, printed by the Mexican publishing house Artífice, and later reissued by Tusquets, in 1988. Still in 1981, she translated The trouble with being born, published by Taurus. Besides these translations, she is the author of two books of philosophical exegesis on the works and thought of Cioran. One of them, Against History, was published for the first time in 1976, then republished in 1986. It consists of a selection of essays and aphorisms, hitherto unpublished in Spanish, extracted and translated by Seligson from several of Cioran’s books, such as the All Gall Is Divided (the English title for Syllogismes de l’amertume), The Fall in Time, even those that were yet to come, such as Drawn & Quartered and Exercises of Admiration. Which allows for concluding that many of the texts of his forthcoming books had already been written long before their publication, and that Cioran didn’t mind giving them away to be translated and published in as many languages as possible.

What is most intriguing about Seligson’s antology, however, is the very last title in the index: “Against the image”, a text that is absent from all of Cioran’s books, giving the impression of having been written in French, maybe not long before, with the supposed title Contre l’image.[2] Curiously enough, it is the same title of a book by French philosopher Roger Munier,[3] first released in 1963, coincidentally by the same publishing house that used to publish Cioran’s French books, Gallimard. Another noteworthy fact is that Munier directed a literary collection at Fayard named L’espace intérieur [The Inner Space], in which he would publish books on Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, among other spiritual and mystical traditions. Munier and Cioran would become friends, or hold close relations to say the least, since 1970.

It is a known fact that besides his own personal writing, meant to be published as books signed by himself, Cioran also worked on demand, writing texts on request of editors and friends. Hence the Essai sur la pensée reactionnaire, on Joseph de Maistre, his collaboration in Joseph Forêt’s Apocalypse of Saint John[4] (1959), alongside Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, Ernst Jünger et al., and even the texts published on the Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF), directed by Jean Paulhan, a magazine held by the same publishing house that used to print Cioran’s books (Gallimard). Many of the essays in The temptation to exist (1956), for instance, had been previously published in different numbers of the NRF (and the same goes for others of his French books).

Roger Munier (1923-2010)

We are thus left with our curiosities aroused, and with no further information besides the disclaimer that “Against the image” is, among some other texts in Seligson’s selection, an “unpublished text” — even though the others, unlike this one, would eventually be featured in Cioran’s following books, such as Drawn and Quartered (1979), Exercises of Admiration (1986), and Confessions and Anathemas (1987). “Against the image” is thus a “lost” text, so to speak, “exiled” and “astray” in a third foreign language, Spanish.

When Seligson’s selection was released in the mid-1970s, by Tusquets, Cioran’s books were only beginning to see the light of their Spain translation, thanks to the diligence of Fernando Savater. Assuming that the text was indeed hitherto unpublished, as claimed by Seligson, being solely available in this volume, one plausible hypothesis is that “Against the image” was originally meant to compose a collection of texts signed by different authors, perhaps requested by Roger Munier, perhaps by some other editor, and for some unknown reason the project did not go ahead.

In fact, Cioran himself mentions it in a note found amidst the thousands of pages of his posthumously published Notebooks [Cahiers]. On the 29th of October, 1970, he writes:

I have just written, for a collective work, a short piece about the image, or rather against it, which could have been signed by the most orthodox believer. And yet I have never been farther from any conversion whatsoever. It’s a mystic ‘drive’ which stems from a certain feverish state that I happen to experience from time to time.[5]

Cahiers : 1957-1972

Not much information here either, and we are still left with the uncertainty concerning the very identity (title, nature, designated editor) of the mentioned collective work. That it was a request from Roger Munier is nothing but a hypothesis, strengthened as it seems by the following biographical fact concerning the French philosopher: in 1968, he wrote a book titled L’homme anterieur [The Anterior Man], which would later be published, in 1970, with a different title: Le Seul [The Sole], by Éditions Tchou. According to his biography, on Munier’s official website, “that publication implies the birth of friendly relations with Cioran.”[6] With this in mind, and remembering the fact that Munier directed a collection of Humanities and studies on Religion, Mysticism and Spirituality (‘The inner space’), we can only guess, without the necessary evidence, that “Against the image” might have been published in a collaborative publication revolving around the subject, or meant to be published in a similar work, but for some unknown reason ended up excluded from it. If the latter hypothesis is true, one possible answer to explain its refusal is the very content of the text, and the perspective from which Cioran develops his (negative) reasoning on (against) the image.

The manifested concern with the Image as such is not striking in itself, as it could just as well be included in the wide array of subjects (“obsessions”) discussed by Cioran in his books. The image is not to be mistaken for mere appearance. Cioran was perfectly aware of his French writing and the choice of words, to begin with the titles of his texts. It is not “Against appearances” – which, regardless of the inexistence of such a title, would virtually amount to a great portion of Cioran’s critical reflections. “Against the image” is a unique, special piece as the object of Cioran’s lucid thinking here is the notion of an inherently meaningful image, as different from the mere appearance, in the sense that a given phenomenon “appears” (phainen, in Greek, means “to appear”, “to shine”). The image is more than just an appearance to the extent that one may significantly (sentimentally) relate to the former, which carries in itself an affective value, a symbolic significance, an iconic relevance, whereas the latter remains indifferent and undifferentiated from the chaotic mass of phenomena (sense data).

It is a higher level of critical reflection than that on the appearance (which can also be found in Cioran’s texts). Thus, the importance of “Against the image”, in the framework of Cioran’s extended oeuvres, lies both in the unusual context of its appearance and in the specificity of the object of Cioran’s critique therein. Nowhere else in his entire works do we find a single text in which Cioran dedicates himself to “deconstruct” the very idea of image, with all its cultural power, its perennial appeal over mankind, not to mention the potential fetishism brought about by it. When one thinks of “image”, one will inevitably come to recall the biblical notion of Man as imago Dei, a Christian dogma rejected by Cioran as a downright absurdity, a false assumption that ultimately condemns God or puts Him under a very bad spotlight, to say the least.[7] Another instance of the image, still in the religious realm, is the Orthodox icon (as in the case of Andrei Rublev), whose ultimate importance within the framework of Orthodox Christianity, Cioran — the son of an Orthodox priest — was very familiar with. However, he would soon reject his father’s and his people’s faith, questioning the incompatibility between the presence of abundant evil and universal suffering in this world “down here”, and the hypothesis of a benevolent, almighty Creator, pure and perfect in its essence, thus precociously becoming a practical atheist (see “O teísmo como solução do problema cosmológico” [Theism as a solution for the cosmological issue], an academic monography written by a young Cioran while still a Philosophy student at the University of Bucharest).

Two further instances of the very idea of image, beyond the scope of Cioran’s text, would be, on the one hand, the mediatic image, as framed by authors such as Walter Benjamin (cult-value versus exposition-value), Jean Baudrillard (simulacra), and more recently Byung-Chul Han (the Transparency Society), and, on the other hand, the psychological notion of a self-image, the very perception or aperception (Kant) that an individual subject consciously holds of him or herself. As for the latter, even though it is not evoked at all in “Against the image”, it is a topic to which Cioran often returns, as testified by his Cahiers [Notebooks]. All in all, as is typical of Cioran, he departs from a religious and/or mystical stance to elaborate an uncanny (unheimlich) argument towards a theologically negative, ascetic perspective of being or non-being characterized by the absolute absence of images, arguing that the Image as such — religious or secular — is always a principle of attachment to this world “down here” (ici bas), just like words, the Word as such (which also entails a religious, biblical signification), both of which are obstacles in the mystical path towards spiritual bareness (desnudez; nudité) and inner silence.

Having said that, “Against the image” resonates some very meaningful Cioranian tenets concerning the gnoseological value, if any, of the vision as such, of the faculty to see with one’s eyes, when it comes to ultimate knowledge (one of a mystical nature), namely knowledge as gnosis, self-knowledge through inner experience, with no concern whatsoever to the events of the outside world (to which also belongs the psychological, surface-dimension of the outer man, as homo duplex). Although Cioran’s mystic metaphors are often visual (enlightenment, awakening, clairvoyance, etc.), the privileged sense in his mystical thinking and writing is ultimately the hearing, with Music as its ideal model of intuitive creation.
The first meaningful statement, taken from A Short History of Decay, concerning the opposition between images and the absence of images, vision and clairvoyant blindness, mundane knowledge as non-knowledge, a false or inessential one, and the ultimate (vertiginous, unbearable) knowing-understanding of the lucid mind as an essential unknowing, a liberating non-knowledge due to an excess of lucidity:

The true greatness of the saints consists in that incomparable power of defeating the Fear of Ridicule. We cannot weep without shame; they invoked the “gift of tears.” A preoccupation with honor in our “dryness” immobilizes us into the spectators of our bitter and repressed infinity, our streams that do not flow. Yet the eyes’ function is not to see but to weep; and really to see we must close them: that is the condition of ecstasy, of the one revealing vision, whereas perception is exhausted in the horror of the déjà vu of an irreparable recognition scene which occurred at the beginning…[8]

“Lypemania”, A Short History of Decay

Here is another remarkable insight, this one taken from The Fall into time, on the gnoseological virtues of the absence of images whatsoever, of non-seeing, of the absolute lack of vision, blindness to the world, whence the inner access to a special kind of sight, to a mystical vision of the absolute which amounts to much more than just God, according to Cioran, namely to what is beyond and above God: the Deity, in Eckhartian terms.

To yield, amidst all our diseases, to the temptation of believing that they will have been of no use to us, that without them we should be infinitely better off, is to forget the double aspect of sickness: annihilation and revelation; sickness cuts us off from our appearances and destroys them only the better to open us to our ultimate reality, and sometimes to the invisible.[9]

“On Sickness”, The Fall Into Time

Last but not least, in The New Gods (as Le mauvais demiurge was titled in English by Richard Howard), we find this very significant passage:

Awakening is independent of intellectual capacities: a genius can be a dunce, spiritually speaking. Moreover, knowledge as such gets one no further. An illiterate can possess “the eye of understanding” and thereby find himself above and beyond any scholar. To discern that what you are is not you, that what you have is not yours, to be no longer the accomplice of anything, even of your own life—that is to see clearly, that is to get down to the zero root of everything. The wider you open yourself to vacuity, the more deeply you steep yourself in it, the further you remove yourself from the fatality of being—yourself, of being man, of being alive.[10]

“Paleontology”, The New Gods

In conclusion, “Against the image” reinforces the image of an aporetic thinker trapped in the contradictions of his temperamental fluctuations. For and against the image: we could as well apply to Cioran’s attitude towards the image, as  displayed both by his writings and his life (all the photographs of Cioran that were taken, with his enthusiastic consent, inevitably come to mind), the following statement made in Cartea amagirilor [The Book of Illusions]: “To side with the truth, against it, is not a paradoxical formula, for the one who comes to grasp its risks and revelations cannot help but love and hate the truth all at once. Whoever believes in the truth is naive; who doesn’t believe, stupid. The only straight path passes through the razor’s edge.”
Finally (and having in mind the aforementioned remark from his Notebooks), it is worth highlighting the special figures evoked by Cioran in the text: Saint Gregory Palamas, Seraphim of Sarov, John of Ruusbroec, and Meister Eckart.

SA MENEZES, R. I. R.; VILLEGAS MARISCAL, L., “An Unheard-of Reflection On/Against The Image, by E.M. Cioran”, Portal E.M. Cioran Brasil, May 12, 2021. Available at: https://portalcioranbr.wordpress.com/2021/05/12/against-image-cioran/


[1] Born into a Jewish-Mexican family, Seligson, after studying Chemistry at the Faculty of Chemistry of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, was inclined towards the study of the History of her people and that of Letters. She then changed her former professional orientation to study Spanish and French also at UNAM, and, later, Jewish culture at the Center Universitaire d’Ètudes Juives in Paris and at the Mahon Pardes in Jerusalem. She taught Theater History classes at the UNAM University Theater Center, besides giving courses in Performing Arts and Theatre Mis-en-Scène. Seligson settled in Lisbon and later in Jerusalem. The writer Elena Poniatowska, who met her in Israel, defined her as follows: “Esther Seligson attracted me because of her fakir-wise ability. I saw her in Jerusalem, and she provided me with the spectacle of her beauty tanned by the desert sun.” – WIKIPEDIA. Esther Seligson. Available at: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esther_Seligson
[2] There seems to be no reason whatsoever for the original title to be anything different from Contre l’image, in French – say, for instance, “Against the appearances”, Contre les apparences. If so, Seligson would have translated it as such: “Against the appearances”. Which stresses the fact that the subject matter of the present text is more than just appearances as such.
[3] Roger Munier (1923–2010) was a French writer and translator. Munier was one of the first translators of Martin Heidegger, into French. From German authors, he also translated Angelus Silesius, Heinrich von Kleist, and Reiner Maria Rilke. From Spanish, Octavio Paz. – WIKIPEDIA. Roger Munier. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Munier
[4] See “Cioran, Dalí e o livro mais caro do mundo” [Cioran, Dalí, and the most expensive book ever made], available at: https://portalcioranbr.wordpress.com/2021/05/09/cioran-dali-livro-mais-caro/
[5] CIORAN, E.M., Cahiers : 1957-1972. Paris: Gallimard, 1997, p. 866.
[6] Roger Munier. Biographie. Available at: https://rogermunier.com/biographie.html
[7] “The odor of the creature puts us on the track of a fetid divinity.” “At the very least, there must be a mixture of good and evil in order to produce an action or a work. Or a universe. Considering ours, it is altogether easier to trace matters back to a suspect god than to an honorable one.” CIORAN, E.M., All Gall Is Divided (Syllogismes de l’amertume, 1952); The New Gods (Le mauvais démiurge, 1969), both translated by Richard Howard.
[8] CIORAN, E.M., “Lypemania”, A Short History of Decay (Précis de décomposition). Transl. by Richard Howard. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2012.
[9] CIORAN, E.M., “On Sickness”, The Fall into Time. Transl. by Richard Howard. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970, p. 130.
[10] CIORAN, E.M., “Paleontology”, The New Gods. Transl. by Richard Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Against the Image

E.M. Cioran

I. He who moves towards bareness rejects the similarities that recall him of this world, from which he would like to separate himself. He is only exasperated by what exists or seems to exist. The more you move away from appearances, the less you need signs to flag them up, or simulations to denounce them, both of which are equally disastrous for the pursuit of what matters, of that which is hidden, of that ultimate bottom that requires, to be grasped, the ruin of all images whatsoever, even spiritual.

II. Damned privilege of the outer man, the image, however pure it may be, always retains a trace of materiality, a certain roughness, and, since it necessarily refers to the world, it carries within itself an element of uncertainty and disturbance. Only by the triumph over it can we head towards bareness, to that security with no strings attached named deliverance. To break free means, in fact, to divest oneself from the image, to abandon all the symbols of down here.

III. We can only set free from the image if, in a similar movement, we free ourselves from the word all at once. Each word amounts to an attack against purity. “No word can expect anything else rather than its own defeat”, claims Gregory Palamas, in his Defense of the Quietist Saints. Only by means of silence may that bottom be reached way beyond appearances, that silence through which, according to Seraphim of Sarov, men and angels become alike. Something noteworthy: there is no frivolous silence, no superficial silence. Every silence is essential. When we savor it, we immediately experience a kind of supremacy, a strange sovereignty. It is possible that what is called interiority is nothing more than a silent wait. Likewise, there is no “true life”, an arid spiritual one, which does not imply the death of the image and the word altogether, the destruction, in the innermost depth of being, of this world and of all worlds. The mystical experience is confused, ultimately, with the bliss of a supreme rejection.

IV. To pursue, to search for the image, is to prove that one remains on this side of the absolute, that one is not qualified for pure vision. And it is comprehensible, for it is not a vision without an object, but rather a vision beyond every object. It could even be said that what it allows us to see is the unlimited absence of everything that may be seen, bareness as such, vacancy as plenitude, or, even better, that “abyss of the super-essence” celebrated by Ruusbroec.

V. Of all those who seek, only the mystic has found, but, as compensation for such an exceptional favor, he will never be able to say what he has found, despite that security that only untransmissible knowledge provides (true knowledge, in short). The path by which the mystic invites us to follow him leads to an unprecedented void, but – and that is what is wonderful – a void that fulfills, for it makes up for all abolished universes. This is an endeavor, the most radical ever attempted, to anchor one in something even purer than being or the absence of being, in something superior to everything, including the absolute.

VI. The knowledge that feeds on appearances is but a false knowledge or, if you prefer, a non-knowledge. For the mystic, knowledge, in the ultimate sense of the word, takes the form of an enlightened ignorance, a “translucent” ignorance. “Whoever lives in the company of this ignorance and divine light, perceives in himself something like a devastated solitude,” says Ruusbroec. From this solitude it will be easy to understand the need, the urgency of the desert, a space conducive to flee towards the absence of images, to an unusual detachment, to a bare unity, even more to the Deity than to God. “Deity and God,” Meister Eckhart tells us, “are as different as heaven and earth. The sky is thousands of leagues higher. So too is Deity in relation to God. God becomes and passes.”

To cling to God is still, as one commentator remarked, to remain” on the threshold of eternity”, not to penetrate it, for eternity is conquered only by elevating oneself to the Deity. Inspired by that same “devastating solitude”, how can we not evoke that ‘oratio ignita’, that prayer of flames’, of which, according to a Father of the first centuries, we are only capable when we are so impregnated with a light from above, that it then becomes impossible for us to employ human language?

CIORAN, E.M., “Contra la imagen [Against the image]”, in Contra la Historia. Transl. and edited by Esther Seligson. Barcelona: Tusquets, 1986 (2nd edition). Transl. from Spanish to English by Rodrigo Inacio Ribeiro Sa Menezes, for Portal E.M. Cioran Brasil (May 12, 2021).


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