Emil Cioran is my favorite among the small group of fascists whose brilliance or historical importance constrains one to read them despite everything. He’s not as good a philosopher as Carl Schmitt or Martin Heidegger, but he’s an infinitely superior writer.
Like many other ex-fascists, Cioran appears to have been too proud to make an honest admission like this: I endorsed Hitler and promoted Romania’s Iron Guard; I praised bloodshed as an intensification of life and indulged in racial mysticism; I contributed by my writing to the greatest moral catastrophe of the 20th century. Instead, he liked to regret his youthful “ravings,” taking the position that what was so bad about his fascist views was the sincerity or passion with which he expressed them. That’s just worming cowardice. And he liked to spin his disillusion with fascism into a general lesson about the dangers of “utopia” in general. Nonsense. To dilute the specificity of your own crimes by loudly regretting they belonged to a category that includes less egregious things is the counterpart to guilt by association: it’s pardon by association, and it’s just as fallacious.
Cioran dealt with his youthful fascism not by explicitly denouncing it (he seems to have been ashamed of his past to the point of silence, though it caught up with him in his second life, when somewhat against his will he became famous as a writer in French), but by inscribing a bloody circle of thorny aphorisms around it. “I am an idolater of doubt, a doubter in eruption, a fanatic without creed, a hero of fluctuation.”
Sometimes Cioran’s aphorisms are just dumb. Expressions pretending to profundity: “Existing is plagiarism.”
I get the sense, reading such observations, that he could have strained his pebbles a bit more stringently to get at the gold chunks. But I also forgive him because his flaws are so lovably writerly. Sometimes he just wanted to pen something, profundity be damned. He admits as much: “One does not write because one has something to say but because one wants to say something.” And: “A minimum of silliness is essential for everything, for affirming and even for denying.”
Some argue that Cioran wrote to survive. He liked to say things along the lines of, if I hadn’t been a writer I’d have been an assassin. And he liked to imply that he’d have committed suicide without writing. But I don’t believe it. He took far too much delight in the expression of despair to be truly despairing. Sorry, but acedia doesn’t lead to aphorisms. Sadness doesn’t make you write in fragments. Depression doesn’t teach you to polish your laconicisms to a high sheen.
True, for the entire latter half of his life, Cioran managed to avoid anything resembling a job. For a long time he survived by pretending to be a student and eating for free in Paris cafeterias. And he liked to claim that his entire mode of writing, his penchant for extremely short forms, for the aphorism and the quotation, was an expression of pure laziness:
“Why fragments?” one young philosopher reproached me.
“Out of laziness, out of frivolity, out of disgust—but also for other reasons…” And since I was finding none of these, I launched into prolix explanations that sounded serious to him and that ended by convincing him.
But the assumption of laziness is posturing I think. Against it we must set his insomnia — many of his aphorisms were written while he could not sleep, brooding on history and human nature — and his principled commitment to the fallible and expiring nature of human insight:
Who cares tomorrow about an idea we had entertained the day before? — After any night, we are not longer the same, and we cheat when we play out the farce of continuity. — The fragment, no doubt a disappointing genre, but the only honest one.
My favorite Cioran texts are his writings about other writers. There his talent for the phrase, the summation, the good-sounding paradox is yoked to the interest of outward-looking reflection. When brooding on himself, Cioran can be comically melodramatic. He likes to pretend, for example, that being born a Romanian is a metaphysical improbability and an inconsolable condition. Not a good look for a nihilist. When brooding on others, however, Cioran is capable of rare penetration, which he then crystallizes in the perfect anecdote. Here he is, for example, discussing his friend, Beckett:
With writers who have nothing to say, who have no world of their own, what can you talk about but literature? With [Beckett] very rarely, in fact almost never [could you talk about literature]. Everyday subjects (material difficulties, problems of all kinds) interested him more—in conversation, of course. What he cannot endure in any case is questions like Do you think that such-and-such a work will last? Does so-and-so deserve the ranke he has? Between X and Y, who will survive, who is the greater figure? Any evaluation of this kind exasperates and depresses him. “What’s the sense in all that!” He exclaimed to me after one particularly painful evening when the dinner-table conversation resembled a grotesque version of the Last Judgment. He himself avoids commenting on his books, his plays: what matters to him is not the obstacles surmounted but those to be surmounted: he identifies himself totally with what he is doing.
I wish Cioran could have taken a break from being Cioran long enough to write someone’s — anyone’s — biography. I would read the hell out of that.
I’m sure that Cioran wanted to be compared to Nietzsche and Pascal. But he doesn’t have the same stature as a thinker: he wrote of fewer things with less profundity. Actually, I think he belongs with Poe and Lovecraft as a theorist of the weird and a poet of cosmic horror. He writes about insomnia and the absurdity of history, fanaticism and ataraxia, the inescapability of death and the poverty of philosophy, and he loves Descartes’ thought experiment about the evil demon.
Cioran at his best trembles with an abashed and inward-turning fury. He was fanatically opposed to fanaticism, and he matters to the history of thought and literature not because his project was right or good, or even because his writings are consistently excellent, but, like De Sade, because he represents an extreme position, a logically possible but existentially improbable point of view.
Woe to the book you can read without constantly wondering about the author!