Cioran’s A Short History of Decay (1949): Foreword by Eugene THACKER

There are writers that one seeks out, and there are writers that one stumbles upon. Emil Cioran is arguably of the latter kind. Such was my own introduction to his work, as a student meandering one rainy afternoon in a used bookstore in Seattle. In the philosophy section, probably squeezed between “Cicero” and “Confucius,” was a book that jumped out simply by its title: A Short History of Decay. Spine-creased and slightly dog-eared, it was by an author I knew nothing about. But the title was evocative. Decay, decline, decadence—these are never popular topics, especially in an era such as ours, equally enamored with the explanatory power of science as we are with an almost religious preoccupation with self-help. But how can one write a “short” history of decay? And is there not something contradictory in assembling a “history” of decay? Even the original French title—Précis de decomposition—is curious. In French, one often gives the title Précis to textbook summaries—for example, a Précis de littérature française or a Précis de mathématiques. But a “precis” of decay? It seemed absurd to write such a book. And so I bought it.

That used bookstore no longer exists, though I still have my copy of Cioran’s book. Originally published in 1949, A Short History of Decay was the first book Cioran wrote in French. Born in the small Romanian village of Ràsinari in 1911, Cioran attended university in Bucharest, where he discovered the works of Pascal and Nietzsche. While there, he befriended Mircea Eliade and Eugène Ionesco, and while still in his twenties, he published several books in Romanian of impassioned and lyrical prose. He also became enthralled by the turbulent politics of the time, an enthusiasm that eventually gave way to disillusionment and bitterness. In the late 1930s, with the support of the French Institute in Bucharest, Cioran was in Paris, ostensibly to write his philosophy thesis. Instead, he spent many of his days bicycling around France. For Cioran it was a time of intense poverty; not only was it difficult to make ends meet, but he experienced both a cultural and linguistic self-exile, writing in a language not his own, in a style composed entirely of fragments, during the long nights of insomnia that he would struggle with his entire life. In the 1940s, against the backdrop of world war, Cioran began a project originally entitled Exercices négatifs (Negative Exercises), then Penseur d’occasion (Second-Hand Thinker), before finally becoming Précis de decomposition, or A Short History of Decay, in the present translation. The project opened a floodgate in his thinking, resulting in some eight hundred manuscript pages and four different manuscript versions of the book.

When A Short History of Decay was published, it tended to polarize readers. Many dismissed it as overly morose and pessimistic, completely out of tune with the obligatory optimism of postwar European culture. Others praised it for precisely these reasons (in his review of the book, Maurice Nadeau proclaimed Cioran “the one whose arrival has been prepared by all the philosophers of the void and of the absurd, harbinger of bad news par excellence”). The original impact of Cioran’s book can still be felt in reading A Short History of Decay today. Like Nietzsche, Cioran is intent on exposing the hypocrisies of the human condition; but unlike Nietzsche, Cioran never once offers a way out, a new horizon, or even words of inspiration. And yet, there is an enthusiasm in Cioran’s prose that comes through, in spite of his predilection towards pessimism and despair: “It is because it rests on nothing, because it lacks even the shadow of an argument that we persevere in life”; “How invent a remedy for existence, how conclude this endless cure? And how recover from your own birth?” There is a kind of ecstasy of the worst in Cioran’s writing that manifests itself in his many voices—sometimes philosophical, sometimes poetic, sometimes political, always polemical. A Short History of Decay is at once a work of philosophy and yet a sort of song, a conflicted and agonistic testament of the “magnificent futility” that is humanity—and the ambivalence this book expresses is, arguably, more and more relevant today in our own era of climate change, peak oil, and disasters both natural and artificial.

Though his books are well-regarded today, and though he received many literary prizes for them (nearly all of which he refused), Cioran always held the worlds of literature and philosophy at arm’s length. His willful experiment with style has largely prevented his work from being easily recognized: neither philosophy nor poetry, neither essay nor novel, neither manifesto nor confession. Perhaps he preferred it this way. Of course, in our digital age is quite easy to find Cioran’s books. The real question is why one would read them. In this sense, perhaps the only way to encounter Cioran is to stumble across him, as if by accident or by fate.

CIORAN, E.M., A Short History of Decay (Précis de décomposition). Transl. by Richard Howard with a foreword by Eugene Thacker. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012.

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