E.M.Cioran’s work bears the stamp of despair, expressed from the outset in finely honed aphorisms. At the age of 23, after finishing his studies in philosophy, he published a first collection in Romanian, Pe culmile disperării (1934; On the Heights of Despair), in which he was already broaching questions about the meaning of existence, the relationship between man and God, and the problem of death. Here he comes across as a thinker who is convinced of the futility of philosophy and is immersed in tedium, in an agonizing emptiness, even, all of which consumes him to the point of insomnia and brings him close to madness. The titles of the opening sections, “Unable to live any longer” and “The passion for the absurd,” give an indication of the work to come, which is an apologia for skepticism, but one that still measures itself against the divine, as does Lacrimi si sfinţi (1937; Tears and saints). He wishes then to be the equal of Schopenhauer, or be nothing.
After several other collections written in Romanian, Cioran settled in France in 1937 and made a permanent choice to use the French language, “the ideal idiom for delicately translating elusive feelings,” in order to express an increasingly dark pessimism, as is voiced in uncompromising titles: from the Précis de décomposition (1949; A Short History of Decay), De l’inconvénient d’être né (1973; The Trouble with Being Born), or La Tentation d’exister (1956; Temptation to Exist), to the recent Aveux et anathèmes (1987; Anathemas and Admirations). The brief form here is closely implicated with paradox and irony, making it possible for Cioran to escape the overweening presumption of philosophy while still writing rigorously. He resembles Heraclitus in his sense of conciseness, and Mallarmé in the attention he gives to language. This lover of aphorisms has henceforth chosen the humility of the essayist: “How is it possible to be a philosopher? To have the audacity to attack time, beauty, God and the rest? The mind puffs up and struts shamelessly. Metaphysics, poetry—the impertinences of a louse…” (Syllogismes de l’antertume [1952; Syllogisms of bitterness]).
In fact, the philosopher speaks of ideas, constructs a system of abstracts, while the essayist speaks of his own existence: “The aphorism is cultivated only by those who have known fear amidst words, that fear of collapsing with all the words.” This existential quest always goes hand in hand with the work of writing, Cioran’s tone being particularly easy to locate, in the succinctness of his pessimistic sentences and his taste for paradoxical statements, sarcasm, and derision. Such derision led him, in his early beginnings in Romania, to reactionary statements, and to virulent anti-Semitic positions, which he was to repudiate after World War II in a new awareness of the suffering inflicted upon European Judaism.
Side by side with these aphorisms, a few books are made up of longer pieces, such as Histoire et utopie (1960; History and Utopia), in which he attempts to denounce all ideologies, since no political undertaking could make good the loss of the vanished paradise of one’s origins. He therefore followed a course which ran parallel to that of his compatriot Eugène Ionesco, choosing the French language, the better to tell of the
absurdity of life. But, being more radical than Ionesco in his options, Cioran also modeled himself on Joseph de Maistre, whom he admired, on another foreigner who chose to write in French, the Irishman Samuel Beckett, and also on Maurice Blanchot and Henri Michaux, other literary figures who were haunted by suicide. Since the irreparable had been committed from birth (“Not to have been born, just to think of it—what happiness, what freedom, what space!”), Cioran was left to live like Job on his dung heap, torn between lamentation and fatalism, but with an increasing mistrust of God, or any other form of the absolute, and a cynicism which held at a distance any new idols we might be tempted to set up. Only lucidity had any importance: according to Cioran we must be mistrustful of ourselves, and resist the desire to organize philosophy like “a coherent vision of chaos.” There is no outcome to be hoped for, since “the tragedy of detachment is that we cannot measure its progress. We move forward in a wilderness, and
never know where we are.” Man, for Cioran, emerged from the Apocalypse to end in disaster. Only music finds favor with him, principally that of Bach—“to whom God owes everything”—and a few writers such as Beckett, Paul Valéry, his compatriot Mircea Eliade, and Michaux, to whom he dedicated his “exercises in admiration.”
It is Cioran’s lucidity which explains the constant success of an author who never wished to be modern, long after existentialism and the writers of the absurd ceased to occupy center stage. The man who dreamed of writing “a light and unhealthy book, which would be at the edge of everything, and would be addressed to no one,” who declared, “a book, which, after demolishing everything, did not demolish itself, will have infuriated us in vain,” keeps a large audience of admirers, as much for his uncompromising ethics as for his incisive style. Although the last words of his late book, Anathemas and Admirations, put forward an ultimate paradox—“After all, I have not wasted my time, I, too, have been flung up and down, just like anybody else, in this aberrant universe”—readers are not wasting their time, either, in facing up to the question of the meaning of existence, in a body of work which is the heir to the French moralists of the 18th century.
BiographyÉmile Michel Cioran. Born 8 April 1911 in Rasinari, Romania. Studied at the lycée in Sibiu, 1920–27; philosophy at the University of Bucharest, 1928–31; fellowship to study in Germany, 1934–35; teaching certificate in philosophy, 1936. Won a fellowship from the French Institute, Bucharest, and moved permanently to Paris, 1937. Studied English at the Sorbonne. Part-time translator and manuscript reader, from 1949. Awards: King Carol II Foundation for Art and Literature Award (Romania), 1934; French Language Prize, 1949. Died in Paris, 20 June 1995.
Essays and Related Prose
Pe culmile disperării, 1934; as Sur les cimes du désespoir, 1990; as On the Heights of Despair, translated by Ilinca ZarifopolJohnston, 1992
Cartea amăgirilor, 1936; as Le Livre des leurres, 1992
Schimbarea la faţă a României, 1936
Lacrimi si sfinţi, 1937; as Des Larmes et des saints, 1986
Amurgal Gândurilor, 1940; as Le Crépuscule des pensées, 1991
Précis de décomposition, 1949; as A Short History of Decay, translated by Richard Howard, 1975
Syllogismes de l’amertume, 1952
La Tentation d’exister, 1956; as Temptation to Exist, translated by Richard Howard, 1968
Histoire et utopie, 1960; as History and Utopia, translated by Richard Howard, 1987
La Chute dans le temps, 1964; as The Fall into Time, translated by Richard Howard, 1970
Le Mauvais Démiurge, 1969; as The New Gods, translated by Richard Howard, 1974
Valéry face à ses idoles, 1970
De l’inconvénient d’être né, 1973; as The Trouble with Being Born, translated by Richard Howard, 1976
Écartèlement, 1979; as Drawn and Quartered, translated by Richard Howard, 1983
Exercices d’admiration, 1986
Aveux et anathèmes, 1987; as Anathemas and Admirations, translated by Richard Howard, 1991
Revelatiile durerii, edited by Mariana Vartic and Aurel Sasu, 1991 Bréviaire des vaincus, 1993
Collected works edition: OEuvres, 1995.
Cioran, E.M., Entretiens avec Sylvie Jaudeau, Paris: Corti, 1990
Gruzinska, Aleksandra, “Émile Michel Cioran,” Miorita: A Journal of Romanian Studies 10 (1986):27–53
Gruzinska, Aleksandra, “E.M.Cioran and the Idea of Admiration,” Journal of the American Romanian Academy of Arts and Sciences 13–14 (1990):145–61
Jaudeau, Sylvie, Cioran, ou le dernier homme, Paris: Corti, 1990
Kimball, Roger, “The Anguishes of E.M.Cioran,” New Criterion 6, no.7 (March 1988):37–44
Liiceanu, Gabriel, Itinéraire d’une vie: E.M.Cioran, Paris: Michalon, 1995
Massmer, Michael W., “In Complicity with Words: The Asymptotic Consciousness of E.M.Cioran,” in The Secular Mind: Transformations of Faith in Modern Europe, edited by W. Warren Wagar, New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982:220–38
Savater, Fernando, Ensayo sobre Cioran, Madrid: Taurus, 1974
Sora, Mariana, Cioran jadis et naguère, Paris: L’Herne, 1988
Tiffrea, Philippe, Cioran, ou la dissection du gouffre, Paris: Veyrier, 1991
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