“Fall into Occidentalism: Cioran against the Maoïstes and the Alt-Right” – Robert COWAN

From the book Volume 2 Literary Translation, Reception, and Transfer. Reprinted from Solace in Oblivion: Approaches to Transcendence in Modern Europe (Oxford, Peter Lang, 2020).

Abstract: The pessimist Schopenhauer is well known as an Indophile; his own philosophy combines Plato, Kant, and the Upanishads. But later pessimists, such as E. M. Cioran in works such as La Chute dans le temps [Fall into Time] (1964), are profoundly critical of the European fascination with Asian philosophy and its influence on the lineage of European ontological and ethical thought. The Maoïstes of the 1960s held that European Orientalism had only served to reinforce the worst aspects of the materialist secularism of the legacy of the Enlightenment. Cioran felt the same, and yet he advocates ideas that fall in line with basic tenets of Asian religions, and saw the youthful passion of 1960s Paris negatively. But in the twenty-first century, as increasing numbers of Western youths are joining groups that wish to do harm to the US and Europe in opposition to their ideologies, one wonders what lessons we might glean from the Occidentalism of Cioran as we attempt to combat the perpetuation of such reified binaries ourselves.

Keywords: alt-right, E. M. Cioran, Maoism, Occidentalism, terrorism


1. Roots in pessimist Orientalism

In 2004, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit published Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, a book that grew out of a response to the 11 September attacks that they had published in The New York Review of Books, a book in which they argue:

The view of the West in Occidentalism is like the worst aspects of its counterpart, Orientalism, which strips its human targets of their humanity. Some Orientalist prejudices made non-Western people seem less than fully adult human beings; they had the minds of children, and could thus be treated as lesser breeds. Occidentalism is at least as reductive; its bigotry simply turns the Orientalist view upside down. To diminish an entire society or a civilization to a mass of soulless, decadent, money-grubbing, rootless, faithless, unfeeling parasites is a form of intellectual destruction. (Buruma and Margalit 2004, 10)

Buruma and Margalit’s definition of the term “Occidentalism” covers most uses of it, and they are right to see it as the flip side of a kind of thinking that is reductive and exploitative. In recent years, we have seen much of this rhetoric around the world – from the leaders of the Islamic State to those of North Korea and elsewhere. Further into their book, however, Buruma and Margalit take a vaguely Orientalist stance themselves, arguing that “the first Occidentalists were Europeans,” namely provincial nineteenth-century Germans criticizing the decadence of the French capital (2004, 22). Buruma and Margalit find this in Richard Wagner’s early opera Tannhäuser (1845), with its juxtaposition of the Wartburg and the Venusberg – the chaste, Christian, German forest contrasts with the frivolous, commercialized, and corrupt world of urban Paris. Thus, theoretically, even Occidentalism itself was invented in the West. Such a move, however, ignores centuries of cross-cultural interaction in which cultures “East” and “West” both praised and blamed, emulated and spurned, cultures different from themselves… [PDF]


About the author: Robert Cowan is an author, academic affairs dean at Hunter College in Manhattan, and literature professor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn (on leave). He has worked as a researcher, instructor, administrator, and volunteer in a variety of other contexts – from Vassar College to Rikers Island to a Siberian orphanage. He received his doctorate in Comparative Literature from the City University of New York Graduate Center and combines creative writing, critical pedagogy, and modern Continental European literature and philosophy in his work… [+]

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