“Cioran’s clinamen”: a female Muslim reading – interview with Daria LEBEDEVA

Daria Lebedeva was born in the city of Odessa, Ukraine, and presently lives in Sweden. She obtained a PhD in Philosophy from the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, under the supervision of Agata Bielik-Robson, with a thesis about Cioran’s clinamen: a case study of a philosophical influence (2012).

It’s an exegesis of Cioran’s works based on the notion of clinamen, borrowed from Harold Bloom’s poetic theory of “the anxiety of influence”. Daria’s philosophical inquiries on Cioran found an outlet in two published monographies: the already mentioned Cioran’s Clinamen (2012), and Quaternion of  the Examples of a Philosophical Influence: Schopenhauer-Dostoevsky-Nietzsche-Cioran (2014). As a poetess, she published her first book: Every month woman is reborn again (Amazon Publishing, 2020). besides having some of her poems translated and published in Sweden. Daria Lebedeva is a member of the regional network of Swedish writers, in whose upcoming anthology some of her new poems are going to be published (autumn 2022).

Besides her academic research on Cioran, in connection with other authors such as Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, Daria Lebedeva is a teacher. Also as an educator, and inspired by Rumi‘s mystical poetry, she has been experimenting with poetic storytelling, a cultural project that navigates through themes surrounding the meaning of the life, based on the examples of various women’s life stories. Her aim is to embellish the—often rough—daily routine of ordinary women with “some special poetic spices”, thus encouraging them to “savor language in a variety of styles”. It is a multilingual, poetic experiment (Russian, Polish, English).

In this inspiring interview, Daria Lebedeva talks about her experience of reading Cioran for the very first time, the fundamental questions that drive her (academic and non-academic) philosophical inquiry into Cioran, ranging from existential to metaphysical ones, such as the religious and/or mystical depths of Cioran’s “negative exercises”, as expressed in this Notebook entry: “I have never had a religion (in the etymological sense), for I have never been re-connected [rélié] to anything. I only have the nostalgia of religion, the religious sigh.” (Cahiers)

RODRIGO MENEZES: When and how did you first discover the works of Cioran? What aspects drew your attention then, and which of them do you consider important today?

DARIA LEBEDEVA: The first book by Emil Cioran that accidently fell into my hands was The Temptation to Exist, translated into Russian. In 2007, in my native city of Odessa, in southern Ukraine, Natalia Bevzuk, my MA thesis supervisor, gave me a book as a support literature that I did not actually end up using. I was writing about crisis in Christianity in general, exemplifying it in 20th-century Catholicism. What in fact drew—to say more, seized—my attention was the inner message of Cioran’s theses. In my reading they looked and tasted so daring, so eye-opening, thought-provoking, alarming, and extremely charming in a polished and refined way. Cioran’s style, his measurably weighed aphorism with no extra words, no pantomimes with words and their meaning, is a source of interpretations, but, as the unwritten rule goes, the voyage of philosophizing can lead to unknown seashores. The conclusions may be unexpectedly different, varying from reader to reader.

To cite (or rather paraphrase) just a few from memory: “Every morning man wakes up with a disturbing feeling of what to do to fulfill the coming day”. “Give me another universe otherwise I cannot endure”. It was such a different wrapping and content from the ones that obedient, academic philosophy students are used to reading, mostly classic books and their interpretations in recommended textbooks. As far as Cioran’s book provoked my own way of thinking, in a purely philosophical sense, so ironically, I dared not to cite Cioran in my MA thesis. So, Cioran did not happen to be listed in the bibliographical section of my thesis.

In 2008, when applying for the PhD programme at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland, I reopened Cioran’s works and aimed to understand him, to decode his puzzling aphorisms and theses. I got the chance, for the five following years, to figure out the tools for understanding Cioran and, moreover, to shed some light on one particularly troubling matter: why is Cioran usually deemed a pessimistic thinker? Why did he choose a gloomy and life-denying path among billiards of possible ways of philosophizing? “Is it just a consequence of a melancholic type of mood or incompatibility with the surrounding world”. All listed questions sounded like the research theses of my dissertation, but actually it turned out to be an even more personal aim than an academic one. Agata Bielik-Robson, my PhD thesis supervisor, shared her acquaintance with Cioran’s books when he was extremely popular among Polish intellectuals in the 1980s. First and foremost, my interest as a reader of philosophical books has always been hooked by the style of writing. Till now, luckily or not, I enjoy the quick reaction of style, like a predator I rush after the bright colors of the text, and only later do I chew the flesh of meaning. So, in the case of reading Cioran, my interest as a reader did not vanish after diving into the depths of meaning. No place for sophistic tricks therein, but instead heavy, hardly chewable messages than can only puzzle a young researcher’s mind. My research interest matured quickly from page to page. Quickly and unavoidably, I admitted that I was dealing with a new Nietzsche or with a worthy inheritor of the French moralists, or else of the late Roman moralists, or a late generation of existentialists still bearing the stigmata of anxiety inherited from Soren Kierkegaard… I was reading and constantly comparing Cioran to some other author I had read from a huge library of philosophical heritage. It has given me a hue, a thread of Ariadne, a methodological framework for reading and understanding Cioran – named philosophical influence.

R.M.: Was your PhD thesis in philosophy about Cioran? Could you give us a brief insight into it (theme, argument, conclusions)? How did you come to choose the Romanian author’s works in your objects of inquiry?

D.L.: Yes, I was working on a dissertation about Cioran which would later be titled Cioran’s clinamen: A case study of Philosophical Influence. Agata Bielik-Robson in fact did me a fantastic favor by adding a final hue to the whole picture. She gave me a methodological framework and a guiding metaphor: clinamen. Harold Bloom, the American literary critic, in his book The Anxiety of Influence (1973), offers 6 tools, 6 beautiful metaphors inherited from Ancient Greek culture for tracing the kinds of influences one inevitably inherits when coming after those great ones on the historical timeline. Clinamen, borrowed from Lucretius, means the swerve, the deviation from the set point. It is in fact the first and the most general—but the most fitting—of all kinds in Bloom’s terminology. Clinamen as a tool and as a metaphor embraces my reading and understanding of Cioran.

The choice of Cioran’s philosophy as an object of inquiry in the form of a PhD dissertation was not encouraged by Cioran himself. A nonacademic thinker in flesh and bones, he never hinted at the possibility of fitting a narrow academic standard. But therein lies a huge irony, namely the irony prescribed by Cioran as one of the distinguishing features of the times he lived in. Truly speaking, now in 2022, I cannot think of anyone comparable to Cioran’s caliber, both in style and in thought. Let me repeat myself, and probably other researchers, for instance James Wood, a literary critic who dubbed Cioran a “Nietzsche without his hammer”. Undoubtedly for all researchers, E. M. Cioran is a second Nietzsche, but where is the second Cioran?

R.M.: What is it like for you to read Cioran as a Muslim? Have your reading and your faith ever come to conflict?

D.L.: Thank you for asking. It is a very interesting question. Here I approach a new reading or a re-rereading of Cioran as a converted Muslim. So, I read Cioran both as a non-Muslim and as a Muslim, and, surprisingly or not, the conclusions and the aftertaste thoughts are similar. It is not the conversion to Islam which demarcates the line in my reading of Cioran, but rather an academic and post-academic self-learning and constant philosophizing. Now, as a Muslim I am still a user of a methodological tool that started out as a search for the influences—a search for the clinamen—and has since then gravitated with reference to religious issues and grand questions. So let me answer using the model of a triangle of influential figures to Cioran: Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. They have all interestingly portrayed Islam, each one in their own way. Thus, before analyzing Cioran’s standpoint concerning Islam, I need to reflect upon the background issues. Schopenhauer, in The World as a Will and Representation, labeled world religions according to optimistic-pessimistic criteria, whether they are life-affirming or life-neglecting. In this respect Islam is put as a foreign, other religion from the perspective of European cultures. Islam’s ban on painting and its cold stance toward music has made it hostile to European culture in the eyes of Schopenhauer. Perhaps not reading an advanced translation of Al-Quran, Schopenhauer labeled Islam as the saddest and poorest form of theism. Here Schopenhauer served the role of an orientalistic thinking critic, measuring everything with narrow pro-European criteria. Dostoevsky felt a mix of awe and anxiety towards Islam, for Islam presented to him a primary threat to the Orthodox faith on the background of the outbreak of the Russian Turkish wars. Everything related to Islam has therefore been depicted as violent, brutal, extremely masculine, and aggressive. What was rejected by Dostoevsky was otherwise admired by Nietzsche, who poetically states that Islam is like the roaring lion of the desert. Perhaps for its dignity and loneliness. In one of his interviews, Cioran was upset by witnessing the increasing number of immigrants from Arabic countries in Paris. The uncontrolled flow of people reminded him of the turbulent years of the zenith of Christianity in Europe, the period depicted by Cioran as a violent uprooting of pagan customs. Christianity came and a fasting with it, Cioran noted. In 1990s, Cioran was very aware and worried by witnessing such cultural changes. So, he comes back to the points of departure and, in his rare and superficial remarks on Islam, he is closer to Schopenhauer.

R.M.: What is your understanding about the relation between Cioran and religion (mainly Christianity, but all monotheistic faiths in general)?

D.L.: I would prefer to analyze Cioran’s attitude toward religion through a wider perspective, for example via metaphysics. In The New Gods (1969[1]), in the text with the same title, Cioran underlines that the scale of polytheism prevails over monotheism for utilitarian purposes. A huge step back to pre-Christian times would not be a regression, but on the contrary a progress for the primary reason that “monotheism curbs our sensibility: it deepens us by narrowing us”.[2] Thus, Cioran easily follows the Nietzschean path of throwing stones at Christianity, blaming it on the court of mankind for making Europeans weaker, idler, more inert, sluggish, and passive, reaching inhumane levels of consumerism in consumeristic societies.

A thinker can refute self-proclaimed and self-formulated rules. A slight balancing of paradoxes is a sign of genius, as Alexander Pushkin, a Russian poet of the 19th century put it: “Genius is a friend of paradoxes”. For instance, in a short manifesto made of fourteen theses, under title “How to conquer pessimism, but not suffering”, Cioran writes: “to learn a tactics of the soul; to conquer the states of mind”.[3] So, the presence of an inclination toward spirituality is verified, but it calls for uprooting, and for what reason? Cioran, who proclaimed himself “a metaphysically displaced person”, acclaims the presence of an inclination to higher metaphysical issues, but then calls for a self-handed operation of extraction. Similarly, with the same logic or a surgeon knife, consciousness is labeled an “annoying and disturbing thorn”, “the poisonous dregs of the absolute”. Men are still doomed to carry in their blood all the metaphysical obstacles which “prevent us from breathing, yet we cannot live without it”.

R.M.: Do you acknowledge any mystic elements in Cioran’s works (for instance a certain mystical sense of existence), however faithless and heterodox they might be?

D.L.: I do acknowledge the presence of mystical elements, in fact, more like a sympathetic interest in the mystics, such as the 13th-century Sufi poet Jalaludin Rumi. To answer this question, the book Tears and Saints comes in handy. I’d like to remark that this book dates from 1937, and it belongs to Cioran’s Romanian period. It was written on the threshold of Romania slipping into pro-fascistic political tendencies, when no one else cared about such a thing as the lives of saints, mostly women consecrated by the Catholic Church, let alone to the point of drawing an extensive list of them. I read it avidly, it was the first book on my list of must-read books by Cioran. I was in such awe when I read the two—if I am not mistaken—references to Rumi made by Cioran that I kept them in mind and still remembered them when I started reading The Mathnawi[4], many years later. I had found my favorite poet, a one-hundred-percent spiritual poet in the works of Cioran. So, to return to the answer, “mystical elements”, what to understand by them? If it’s an individual’s longing for God, thus Cioran was troubled himself by God. Almost in every book there is a thesis about God. Besides, Cioran admitted in one of his interviews that he reflects upon God every single day. In Tears and Saints, he writes (quoting a German mystic): “‘One thought of God is worth more than the entire world’ (Catherine Emmerich). Poor saint, she was so terribly right!”[5] Mystical elements are rather pro-faith, non-religious, representing perhaps an alternative inquiry of another Universe, or a third Rome, the place of nowhere, as Cioran once put: “Our place is somewhere between being and non-being, between two fictions”. Likewise, in the monotheistic tradition, mysticism is a third path to escape the narrowness of dogmatism and to take a fresh breath of such a daring ambition to find one’s own way toward God. So, likewise, for Cioran mystical deviations are attempts to fulfill a vast void that has taken place after the violent uprooting of man’s inclination to the aforementioned “tactics of the soul’’, to address one’s own consciousness and the absolute.[6]

R.M.: Why do you consider Cioran an important author that deserves to be widely read?

D.L.: Undeniably, Cioran is worth being read by various kinds of readers. But just like every thinker relies on their readers, I think Cioran calls for his own reader, the one who wholeheartedly agrees with him when he states in On The Heights of Despair (1934): “Philosophy is the art of masking inner torments”. Starting from the end of the aphorism, a philosopher burnt out by inner torments, in bitter suffering, found solace in writing as a self-therapy, sharing through the books he wrote his personal incompatibility with the rest of the world. Cioran undoubtedly needs a reader capable of empathically reading, placing the philosopher into tradition, and transparently seeing his roots. Find the clinamen of a thinker, and you are halfway to finding the key for opening their enigmas!

Cioran’s philosophy is extremely important as a byproduct of the refusal to engage in metaphysical ruminations. His philosophy is a bright piece of glass in the mosaic of 20th-century Western philosophy. To ignore or dismiss it would be an irreparable loss! It manifests the verges that a philosopher might reach once departing from nihilistic, negative tendencies of thinking. Now let me share my present-day conclusions, different from the ones of my PhD thesis. Metaphorically speaking, metaphysics has been sent into exile in the cold outskirts of Siberia since Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”. The swift calling for urgent changes made men more prone to look down from the politico-social to trivial issues, embodying yet another famous passage from Plato’s Republic. In a post-metaphysical world, people are like the characters in Plato’s allegory, “never reaching beyond to what is truly higher up, never looking up at it or brought up to it, never filled with what really is, and never tasting any stable or pure pleasure. On the contrary, they are always looking downward like cattle and, with their heads, never reaching beyond to what is truly higher up, never looking up at it or brought up to it, never filled with what really is, and never tasting any stable or pure pleasure. On the contrary, they are always looking downward like cattle and, with their heads bent over the earth or the dinner table, they feed, fatten, and fornicate”.[7] Nietzschean nihilism, pessimistic philosophy, non-religious existentialism, the politicization of any discourse whatsoever, including the philosophical one (as if Protagoras had won over Socrates, foreseeing the time when everyone would be allowed to say whatever they think, doxa has won over dialectics), and, last but not least, the rejection of the sense in searching for the meaning of life made philosophy uninhabitable and empty as an abandoned desert. Denial of the meaning of life is an apotheosis of Cioran’s pessimism, and it has a paradoxical conclusion. The remedy may lie upon stating the rejected postulates: searching for the meaning of life is itself a meaningful task—not a Sisyphean one. The opening sentences of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus are an invitation to search for the meaning of life, though in an absurdist connotation. During those few seconds—vitally significant to Camus—Sisyphus manifests an adamant will for keeping a search for the meaning of life, and after each failure he gathers forces to stand up and go on. To Camus, this riddle can be solved by the presence of life-affirming sparkles of light. It cannot be eradicated at any rate.

To conclude, after finding out the reasons why Cioran is a pessimistic thinker, I am reluctant as researcher to narrow my curiosity within a narrow pessimistic framework. Therefore, I long for the chapter “to be continued’’, to widen my horizons of setting questions and searching for answers.

Daria Lebedeva (Älmhult, Sweden)
Rodrigo Menezes (São Paulo, Brazil)
3 of August 2022


[1] Le mauvais démiurge in French (original title), translated by Richard Howard as The New Gods (which happens to be the title of the second chapter in the book, Les nouveaux dieux).

[2] “The new gods”, The New Gods (1969).

[3] “A învăţa o tactică a sufletului ; a cuceri stările sufleteşti”. CIORAN, Emil, Cartea amăgirilor (The Book of Illusions, unpublished in English). Bucureşti: Humanitas, 1991, p. 147.

[4] Mathnawi, or Masnavi, is a poem written in rhyming couplets, or more specifically a poem based on independent, internally rhyming lines. Most mathnawī poems follow a meter of eleven, or occasionally ten, syllables, but had no limit in their length. Typical mathnawi poems consist of an indefinite number of couplets, with the rhyme scheme aa/bb/cc… Certain Persian masnawī have had a special religious significance in Sufism, such as Rumi’s Masnavi-i Ma’nawi, which consists of 6 books / 25,000 verses, and which has been used in prayer among many Sufis. Rumi’s Masnavi is one of the most influential works of Sufism, commonly called “the Quran in Persian”. It has been viewed by many commentators as the greatest mystical poem in world literature.

[5] “‘Un gînd la Dumnezeu face mai mult decît toată lumea’ (Caterina Emmerich). Are dreptate, biata sfîntă.” CIORAN, Lacrimi şi sfinti. Bucureşti: Humanitas, 1991, p. 188.

[6] Likewise, Cioran writes in The Trouble with being born (1973): “Only what has been conceived in solitude, face to face with God, endures—whether one is a believer or not.”

[7] PLATO, Republic, Book IX, 586a. Transl. by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2004, p. 288.

“Cioran’s clinamen”: a female Muslim perspective
Interview with Daria Lebedeva [PDF]