Nae Ionescu (1890-1940), a Philosophy professor at the University of Bucharest in the inter-war period, and the mastermind of the Iron Guard who co-opted Cioran’s young generation of intellectuals (tânăra generaţie of 1927) into the Legionary movement (Ionescu only adhered to the Iron Guard due to a grudge with the king); Julius Evola (1898-1974), an Italian philosopher whose esoteric worldview featured conspiracy theories, aryanism and a passion for the occult; Aleksandr Dugin (1962-), Russian philosopher and political theoretician known for a taste in esotericism, like Evola, for his Fourth Political Theory, and concepts such as Multipolarity and Eurasianism.
They all have in common the ultra-conservative stance, a certain traditionalist mindset characterized by a fierce defense of religious tradition and dogma, esotericism and the occult against modern science and objective rationality, and absolute contempt for the “modern world”, namely Western liberal democracy. They are antimodern, antiliberal, antiegalitarian, antidemocratic, totalitarian nazifascist thinkers whose misleading rhetoric has dragged many a clever mind into the rabbit hole of sectarianism and fanaticism.
As it has been widely known since the late 1980s, Cioran, like many of his fellow Romanian contemporaries, engaged with the far-right movement of the Iron Guard, under the sphere of influence of Nae Ionescu, who was a charismatic and cherished professor of Metaphysics, Logics, and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Bucharest. The major illustration of Cioran’s fanatical legionary days in Romania, in the 1930s, besides several articles published in Romanian newspapers and magazines (some of which have been gathered together in Solitude et destin), is Schimbarea la faţă a României (1936), a politico-cultural manifesto in which he envisaged the so-called “Transfiguration of (the face of) Romania” (what the title literally means in English). The best critical biography of Cioran’s Romanian period, and particularly the engagement with the Iron Guard which he would later recant, is Marta Petreu’s An Infamous Past: E. M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania (Ivan R. Dee, 2005).
I’ll join with black despair against my soul,– SHAKESPEARE, Richard III (epigraph to A Short History of Decay)
And to myself become an enemy.
All in all, it must be noted that Cioran’s thinking underwent some radical changes throughout his lifetime, particularly in the transition between his Romanian (1911-1937) and French years (1937-1995). A conjunction of factors both objective and subjective, the aftermath of WWII, and the innominable horror of the Holocaust, in which he would lose a good friend, the Romanian-Jewish poet and philosopher Benjamin Fondane (assassinated in a gas chamber with his sister), played a major role in Cioran’s mindshift from the mid-1940s on.
The young sleepless intellectual, the desperately nationalist thinker who used to write in Romanian, the author of books such as On the Heights of Despair, The Book of Illusions (unpublished in English), Tears and Saints and The Transfiguration of Romania, is quite different from the one he would struggle to become, turning against his original (Romanian) self, the French author of books such as A Short History of Decay, The Temptation to Exist, History and Utopia, and The New Gods (Le Mauvais Démiurge).
Abandoning his mother tongue and adopting the French language was a crucial decision stemming from the disillusionment with the fate of his country and with his very self. A Short History of Decay, which opens with a “Genealogy of fanaticism”, followed by a cryptically self-referential text titled “The Anti-Prophet” (no less self-referential than the former), marks the beginning of Cioran’s transformation, of his self-imposed conversion to the status of a “Metaphysical Exile” and a “Renegade”.
The conclusions drawn from the originally pessimistic existential outlook on existence and human condition are substantially different: they move from the utopian-totalitarian convictions of the days of yore, in which the tragic insight about life and existence embraced the idea of a dictatorial revolution, to a disillusioned skeptic or nihilistic or even buddhist-like perspective, in which the absurd tragicity of existence leads to a lucid and detached acceptance, in the opposite direction of a utopian, totalitarian temptation.
The young Romanian utopian thinker dreamt of “saving” himself by “saving” his country; the later advocate of lucid detachment denies all possibility of “salvation” whatsoever, colectivelly and individually. “A Short History of Decay is the book of an author who has moved from total commitment to the nihilism of the great sophists.” (PETREU, 2005, p. 234). According to Marta Petreu, Cioran moved from the fanaticism of a wannabe-prophet to the skepticism of a “Wandering Sophist”.
Rodrigo Menezes, April 3rd, 2022
Cioran’s “Letter to a faraway friend” (Constantin Noica)
History and Utopia (1960)
Imagine a society overpopulated with doubts; in which, with the exception of a few strays, no one adheres utterly to anything; in which, unscathed by superstitions and certainties, everyone pays lip service to freedom and no one respects the form of government that defends and incarnates it. Ideals without content, or, to use a word quite as adulterated, myths without substance. You are disappointed after promises that could not be kept; we, by a lack of any promises at all. At least we are aware of the advantage the intelligence gains from a regime that, for the moment, lets it function as it will, without submitting it to the rigors of any imperative. The bourgeois believes in nothing, true enough; but this truth is, I daresay, the positive side of his vacuum, for freedom can be manifested only in the void of beliefs, in the absence of axioms, and only where the laws have no more authority than a hypothesis. If you were to object that the bourgeois nonetheless believes in something, that money perfectly fulfills, for him, the function of a dogma, I should reply that this worst of all dogmas is, strange as it may seem, the one that is the most endurable for the mind. We forgive others their wealth if, in exchange, they let us starve to death in our own way. No, it is not so sinister, this society which pays no attention to you, which abandons you, guarantees you the right to attack it, invites you, even obliges you to do so in its hours of sloth when it lacks energy to execrate itself. As indifferent, in the last instance, to its own fate as to yours, it is in no way eager to infringe upon your misfortunes, neither to reduce nor to aggravate them, and if it exploits you, it does so by an automatism, without premeditation or spite, as is appropriate to weary and satiated brutes that are as contaminated by skepticism as their victims. The difference between regimes is less important than it appears; you are alone by force, we without constraint. Is the gap so wide between an inferno and a ravaging paradise? All societies are bad; but there are degrees, I admit, and if I have chosen this one, it is because I can distinguish among the nuances of trumpery.