“The tyranny of intelligence: Valéry and Cioran” (Ciprian Vălcan)

PEN [Poets, Essayists, Novelists] Centrul Roman, May 15 2010

In accordance with an entire French tradition of Classicism, of respect for rules, conventions, manners, both on a social level and in what artistic creation is concerned, Valéry tries to build a rampart against the all the more powerful assault coming from the partisans of an artistic form which sets itself to depict bare reality, undisguised truth, pure nature by privileging emotional outburst, the exaltation of authenticity, the celebration of life in all its aspects, no matter how cruel or barbarous. Thus, he opposes the strange mixture of romanticism, naturalism and vitalism that had managed to impose a growing mistrust towards the products of intelligence and the entire cultural context of European rationalism, by trying to prove that there is no superior production of the spirit without the indispensable filter of the intellect. His ingenious and varied arguments are meant to emphasize the theoretical naivety indulged into by the adepts of faithful reality transcription, similar to the naivety of materialist philosophers who, fascinated by their vision of the world’s independence upon the spirit, overlook the fact that the respective image is in itself a product of the mind, that direct access to things presupposes, in fact, the mediation offered by the individual’s faculties, that instant grasp upon reality is merely a childish illusion.

As a reaction to this attitude – increasingly popular at the end of the 19th century and moreover at the beginning of the 20th –, Valéry focuses upon a full explanation of the genuine efforts of the spirit, trying to prove that spontaneity, authenticity, naturalness only exist as particular figures of speech, generated as a result of an equally laborious process of intelligence. Since honesty and naked truth usually overlie such attitudes, he insists upon the traditional vision of truth, indicating its decaying nature and signaling the prominence of artificiality, simulation and falsification in the process of truth-production. It seems evident to him that truth is not a given but a product which results from an extremely complex work of filtering the elements of reality; all that can be known lacks immediacy, being mediated and worked upon by the categories of the intellect. To Valéry, knowing equals fabricating, capturing the chaotic flux of living in a series of forms that can be identified by the individual’s conceptual machinery, proving useful to the pacification and lucid governing of the world.

In Valéry’s world, one of the fundamental axioms is that according to which “Chacun dissimule quelque chose à quelqu’un, et chacun, quelque chose à soi-même”[1]. This does not imply a condemnation of human hypocrisy, of the vices which accompany corrupt nature, as used to happen in Pascal’s or the moralists’ case. It is only the necessary acknowledgement of the valid principles which govern the relationships between individuals, allowing for the dismantling of purely fictive notions from among which the much-advertised sincerity detaches itself. Its impossibility is demonstrated as the natural outcome of the enunciation of the respective axiom: if disguise functions both in connection to the self and in connection to the others, there are necessarily “deux versants de <sincérité>”[2], the relativization of sincerity marking its impossibility and practically implying its dissolution.

Moreover, Valéry displays numerous examples to support the idea that simulation is a natural human feature, contributing both to the people’s insertion within the society and to the shaping of individual personality. From this perspective, it stands out as an indication of normality, of mental health, since “l’homme sain d’esprit est celui qui porte le fou à l’intérieur”[3], the one capable of controlling the various anarchic impulses, disorderly instincts, arbitrary desires, keeping the diffuse dementia each of us carries around within reasonable, imperceptible and disguisable limits. Valéry is convinced that the difference between normality and madness is merely one of degree, not one of substance.

Thus, people have the same potential in terms of malady, the same resources of manias, deliria, phobias, the difference lying in the inexplicable coagulation which takes place in some of these cases, making the previously latent pathology manifest and preventing the camouflaging of manifestations which might have been previously considered simply bizarre. Yet, if the individual does not feel the need to discipline his behavior while he is alone, the other’s presence acts as a sort of compulsion, forcing him to resort to a series of artificial attitudes in an attempt to satisfy external expectations and thus obscuring his singularity[4]. The society needs the consistency of the characters people assume; it cannot tolerate too high a fluidity of manifestations and natures, privileging stability and convention over originality, excess, incoherence: “Il y a un mensonge et une simulation <physiologiques> qui définissent l’état normal et raisonnable. Le milieu social exerce une sorte de pression sur nos réactions immédiates, nous contraint à être et à demeurer un certain personnage identique à lui-même, dont on puisse prévoir les actions, sur lequel on puisse compter, qui se conservera assez intelligible…”[5]

By means of constantly imposing this pressure upon the individual, the society contributes to the unleashing of his personality, whose genesis is not a natural process, a perceptible immediate result, but the final part of a refined process of analysis and laborious fixation of relatively invariable features. In order to impose such features, one needs to surpass all haphazard or accidental characteristics, to renounce the chaos of impressions, gestures and insufficiently assimilated forms, to methodically leave fortuitous action behind to the benefit of definitively tracing firm and easily recognizable contours, meant to represent the trademark of consolidated behavior and being thus predictable, easily identifiable, placed outside the reach of any major fluctuations.

Simulation is the responsible mechanism for the carrying out of this vast project, rather indispensable for a proper functioning of the society. It is a speculative mechanism which tends to bring self-image and the others’ image of the self to almost perfect overlapping, as a result of a subtle game of reflections whose apparently unpredictable dynamics inevitably leads to the same outcome: the obscuring of être to the benefit ofparaître, the capturing of being by appearance, its acquisition to the degree of dissolution, to the ultimate transformation of the initial artifice into nature, so that the mask might become the true and sole expression of the face.

If, at the beginning of this process, there is a genuine abyss between être and paraître, if the differences seem irreconcilable, if the enactment is itself the result of a reaction of the individual against his own nature which he wants to camouflage or suppress[6], appearance eventually cannibalizes the being, emerging as the only survivor. The dynamics of this relationship is, however, much more complex than could imagine the one who initiates it, with the firm belief that he will be able to fully control the image he projects and obtain the expected result by managing to be perceived according to his own wishes. In fact, the created character always escapes control: the impact one makes upon the others cannot be rigorously anticipated, and his appearance is not identical with the intention presiding over its shaping.

It is merely the outcome of external perceptions; it is the sum of the others’ impressions, “un effet de l’effet qu’il produit sur un grand nombre d’inconnus[7] It is this type of appearance that swallows the being, not its mere initial projection, individual calculation being constantly contradicted or at least modified by the experience of one’s contact with the others. Man is forced to conform to the image he acquires, to give increasingly more space to his own ‘character’, giving up the whole stage and becoming increasingly dependent on him: “Dans toute carrière publique, une fois que le bruit qu’il fait revient à son auteur et lui enseigne qui il paraît – celui-ci joue son personnage – ou plutôt son personnage le joue, et ne le lâche plus”[8]. The process ends only after the limits of individuality have been established, after all the shades of the socially acknowledged personality have been pinned down, thus concluding the complicated genesis: “Même notre personne, en tant que nous en tenons compte, est une simulation. – On finit par être plus soi qu’on ne l’a jamais été. On se voit d’un trait, dans un raccourci, et l’on prend pour soi-même l’effet des actions extérieures qui ont tiré de nous tous ces traits, qui nous font un portrait[9]

Valéry notes that, in general, the conflict between être and paraître is not meant to stir big convulsions: the human being is forced to give precedence to appearance, constrained to adopt its features and imitate it until they become one. In the case of powerful spirits, this confrontation is violent, bringing face to face what he names “deux instincts capitaux de l’intelligence”[10]. On the one hand there stands the inclination to seduce, to obtain both glory and other people’s admiration; on the other hand, there is the voluptuousness of loneliness, of uniqueness, of incomparability, of independence on anything but the self. The authors who give in to the first temptation enter a world of exhibition, comparison, mutual evaluations that change them into puppets of public opinion and taste, incapable of preserving their independence and forced to eventually adjust to the image they have generated: “L’homme connu tend à ne plus être qu’une émanation de ce nombre indistinct d’inconnus, c’est-à-dire une créature de l’opinion, un monstre absurd et public auquel le vrai homme peu à peu le cède et se conforme”[11]

The others, who believe in their radical irreducibility, who feel no connection between them and the rest of humankind, but rather repulsion at the thought that they might belong to a species made up of almost infinitely repetitive exemplars, try to preserve the impression of their singularity by inventing a work whose aim is to separate them forever from others, to build a true barricade between them and the rest of known mortals. Valéry thinks that this obsession might feed upon the fear of death itself, the inability to accept the essential identity between them and the others, them and the people whose daily passing away indicates the overwhelming power of death: “Refuser d’être semblable, refuser d’avoir des semblables, refuser l’être à ceux qui sont apparemment et raisonnablement nos semblables, c’est refuser d’être mortel, et vouloir aveuglement ne pas être de même essence que ces gens qui passent et fondent l’un après l’autre autour de nous”[12]

Nevertheless, regardless of the big spirits’ direction or motivation, the result is the creation of a work which can serve either their desire for glory, recognition, or their wish for separation, inaccessibility and incomparability. This work must never be considered a faithful expression of their nature, but rather be judged as an outcome of simulation, as a necessarily artificial creation which bears no connection to life, biographical incidents or the reality of the man behind it. To Valéry, it is evident that the work expresses not the author’s being, but his wish to appear, his art of defeating change, eliminating accident, obstinately constructing an image of his own thinking which blatantly contradicts its own nature – perpetually unstable, inconsistent, disorderly, inclined towards vagueness and arbitrary games of the mind.

By means of showing himself to the others, the creator leaps forward, hides the difficulties, takes in the contradictions that have haunted his spirit, masks his initially imprecise intuition, proposing an edifice meant to impress by solidity, clarity and coherence, by the impression of a flawless intelligence, in full control of its means of expression and possessing the quality of easily solving all difficulties, which excludes all possible hesitation. Consequently, the attempt to retrieve the personality of big thinkers using only their writings as a starting point “conduit à l’invention des monstres”[13], just as the attempt to explain their work solely by means of biographical episodes is absolutely useless, revealing only a series of manias, sordid details, purely human weaknesses and the exact details the author himself had tried to overcome: “Mais le biographe les guette, qui se consacre à tirer cette grandeur qui les a signalés à son regard, de cette quantité de communes petitesses et de misères inévitables et universelles. Il compte les chaussettes, les maîtresses, les niaiseries de son sujet. Il fait, en somme, précisément l’inverse de ce qu’à voulu faire toute la vitalité de celui-ci, qui s’est dépensée contre ce que la vie impose de viles ou monotones similitudes à tous les organismes, et des diversions ou d’accidents improductifs à tous les esprits”[14].

In his attempt to describe the mechanism of creation, Valéry starts from the statement that it involves an attitude placed at the precise antipodes of natural behavior, an anti-natural orientation. Yet, any such attitude “implique l’effort, la conscience de l’effort, l’intention, et donc l’artifice”[15]. In order to attain excellence of the general view, the creator must distance himself from the banality of naked existence, from its manifest insignificance, from the true monotony of everyday life, taking on a sustained effort which allows him to gradually eliminate the parasites of plainness and reach an essentialized image and the surfacing of form. The coagulation of the work into this end result may occur only after the author has managed to master the initial impulse which pushes him towards creation, placing it under the controlling forces of reason meant to correct, moderate and use it as a starting point, drawing it out of its rawness and inserting it into the machinery of language to fit the draconic constraints of expression[16].

From Valéry’s perspective, there is  no doubt that “le vrai à l’état brut est plus faux que le faux”[17], that factual truth, obtained by the mere agglutination of fugitive impressions, by the haphazard mix of data arbitrarily filtered through the senses, by the mechanical reproduction of juxtaposed episodes, imposes a partial, impoverished image, deprived of any necessity, whose acceptance would mean capitulation before meaningless chance. Truth cannot be obtained through a passive record of facts, through a lazy series of gestures and formulae, but only by the transformation of the brutal avalanche of events, through setting their significant nucleus free, through triumphantly imposing Form. Truth is not a given, it is a laborious construction. It is not easily perceptible, but the result of a long effort of the mind. Thus, it appears due to simulation, to that intervention of intention that lies behind all deliberate creation. In order to exist, truth needs lie not to impose itself by opposition, not to stand out by comparison with its contrary, but to integrate it and surpass the shapeless banality of factual truth: “Le vrai que l’on favorise se change par là insensiblement sous la plume dans le vrai qui est fait pour paraître vrai. Vérité et volonté de vérité forment ensemble un instable mélange où fermente une contradiction et d’où ne manque jamais à sortir une production falsifiée”[18].

The example which Valéry finds most significant is that of confessions or diary writers willing to impress their readers by the promise of exposing themselves mercilessly in the fullest truth of their existence, by creating the expectation of revelation and of unveiling shocking or exceptional details. However, since a real person does not possess a too generous stock of remarkable deeds or gestures, since one’s feelings are mostly anodyne, one falls prey to the tension one has created and invents a character which would befit the public’s expectations, necessarily estranging oneself from the plainness of truth: “on sait bien qu’une personne réelle n’a pas grand’chose à nous apprendre sur ce qu’elle est. On écrit donc les aveux de quelque autre plus remarquable, plus pur, plus noir, plus vif, plus sensible, et même plus soi qu’il n’est permis, car le soi a des degrés. Qui se confesse ment, et fuit le véritable vrai, lequel est nul, ou informe, et, en général, indistinct”[19]

Valéry believes that the most important danger the artist has to face is that of giving in to the pressure of feelings, of investing in the faithful transcription of  whatever it is that he might feel, thus fatally succumbing to an easy solution and letting himself caught in the trap of banality. In order to be able to put forward an important work, he needs to distance himself from whatever is unmediated, he must employ his talents to the end of disguising everything that has to do with naturalness, keeping away from the inexplicable constraints of affection and believing in the intercession of reason. Art is simulation, artifice, triumph of the intelligence against daily insignificance, victory of eccentricity against the insipid reality of common feeling. That is precisely why art cannot be found in bare emotions, that are “aussi faibles que les hommes tout nus”[20]. Since our soul is the worst thinker[21], since “l’âme n’a pas d’esprit”[22], the creator is forced to distance himself from his shapeless offspring, from its tedious progeny, either by eliminating it in order to shake off possible turbulences, or by contradicting it and changing it according to the habits of the mind.

In order to describe the process of creation, Valéry privileges the model of construction, of patient and lucid mental labor. He finds it important to invalidate the statement according to which, in order for an important work to be produced, a series of spectacular experiences would be required so as to subsequently generate strong impressions: “Je ne pense pas que les esprits puissants aient besoin de l’intensité des impressions. Elle leur est plutôt funeste, étant ceux qui de rien font quelque chose”[23]. Incapable of believing in the power of delirium, in the benefic virtues of the absurd or incoherence, he is also a firm opponent of the notion of inspiration, against which he launches devastating attacks, using the entire artistry of his caustic spirit. His argumentation follows two main directions. According to the first, accepting the common idea of inspiration, which holds it true that an entire work could be dictated to an author by the whims of some divinity, would lead to the conclusion that it is perfectly possible that the ‘inspired’ write in a language unknown to him and without taking into account the cultural context of the time, the literary taste of the epoch and his predecessors’ works. Yet, since such a thing never happens, Valéry ironically notes that inspiration proves to be a power “si déliée, si articulée, si sagace, si informée et si claculatrice, qu’on ne saurait pourquoi ne pas l’appeler Intelligence et connaissance”[24].

The second line of argumentation focuses upon the realization that, from among the innumerable impulses of inspiration, only extremely few can be considered important, the majority being immediately ignorable mental waste, remains which have accidentally reached the margins of consciousness, without having any significance or purpose. Even those that prove fertile only acquire their value as a result of transformation, after the laborious activity of intelligence has acted upon them: “l’esprit nous souffle sans vergogne un million de sottises pour une belle idée qu’il nous abandonne ; et cette chance même ne vaudra finalmente quelque chose que par le traitement qui l’accommode à notre fin. C’est ainsi que les minerais, inappréciables dans leur gîtes et dans leurs filons, prennent leur importance au soleil, et par les travaux de la surface”[25]

To Valéry, the most obvious difference between a common individual and a creator can be noticed at the level of their mental activity. If the former is not capable of or even in the least preoccupied with controlling the natural disorder of his own mind, allowing it the freedom of the fullest intellectual vagabondage and the random consecration of the strangest digressions or obsessions, operating only with perpetually incipient fragments of ideas (never accomplished or systematized, randomly juxtaposed, coordinationless, unable to flow into a coherent global view), the latter programmatically violates the natural rhythm of the mind, imposing a series of rules and constraints that drastically limit its freedom, making it aim at order, developing its extremely rare capacity of “de coordonnner, d’harmoniser, d’orchestrer un grand nombre departies[26].

By means of systematic effort and intense concentration, the outcome of this difficult discipline-imposing operation is a mental configuration favorable to an intelligible construction, to a gathering of ideas according to their internal affinities, so that they might organize and impose themselves onto consciousness, become understandable as psychic entities that have acquired their independence as to spiritual accidents “perdus dans les statistiques de la vie locale du cerveau”[27]. Even if he is perfectly aware of the absolutely unpredictable nature of the birth of ideas, even if he admits that thinking most often resembles an attempt at a dialogue of the minds and that intelligence may be compared to gambling, Valéry insists upon the pre-eminence of conscious, orderly, lucid labor in the configuration of a work. Without denying that there are days “with ideas”, in which “tout à coup naissent des moindres occasions, c’est-à-dire de RIEN”[28], he lies emphasis on the mind’s openness to them, on the complex operations which lead to the construction of an entire machinery to take over the received impulse, ensuring it the proper development circumstances, creating the suitable environment for the genuine opening of thought, for the establishment of connections that allow it to stand out. Nevertheless, as opposed to the partisans of inspiration, to those who celebrate the moment ideas are born, Valéry privileges the end of the process, the emergence of pure, precise thought, integrated within a productive constellation, capable of generating other ideas and nourishing a systematic vision. To him, if taken to extremes, any perception can be useful, any external impulse can be put to use. The essential thing is to turn on the machinery of the mind, to capture the accidental excitement and turn it into something useful due to the intellect’s processing ability, to its immense planning and calculating capacity, to its engineering dimension[29].

For this reason, it is absolutely legitimate that he employ the work of other authors in order to support and develop his own vision, that he use the inspiration a foreign way of thinking may offer, since the raw matter which comes out of such meetings is commonly filtered by the spirit, leading to the surfacing and shaping of one’s own ideas. Just as it happens in the case of sensations, perceptions or fragments of ideas upon which the actions of the mind are exerted, other creators’ influences only serve as a mere starting point, as a factor which can set the mind’s work in motion, thus sparing a series of energies that will be thus available during the final stage of thought construction. According to Valéry, there is a series of books that “me sont des aliments dont la substance se changera dans la mienne. Ma nature propre y puisera des formes de parler ou de penser ; ou bien des ressources définies et des réponses toutes faites: il faut bien emprunter les résultats des expériences des autres et nous accroître de ce qu’ils ont vu et que nous n’avons pas vu”[30].

The digestion metaphor offers Valéry the most appropriate means of describing the way in which an author encapsulates other spirits’ influence. Valéry was convinced that the existence of originality is a mere prejudice, a matter of fashion, the obsession of people who thus betray their mimetic nature as to the ones who have made them believe in such an idea[31], that “Ce qui ne ressemble à rien n’existe pas”[32]. He maintains that the difference between a plagiarist and a creator can be traced down not by following their sources, which can often be identical, but by analyzing the conclusions they reach, by examining the way in which they leave their own mark upon the borrowed materials, conveying them as such or, to the contrary, organically incorporating them into their own vision and making them unrecognizable: “Plagiaire est celui qui a mal digéré la substance des autres : il en rend les morceaux reconnaissables.

L’originalité, affaire d’estomac.

Il n’y a pas d’écrivains originaux, car ceux qui mériteraient ce nom sont inconnus; et même inconnaissables.

Mais il en est qui font figure de l’être”[33]”.

Attaining perfection is a laborious operation, a privileged episode in the quasi-infinite epopee of simulation, which presupposes equal distancing both from the sheer spontaneity, the insignificant arbitrariness upon which the constructive faculties of the mind must focus in a fortunate attempt to disguise the initial impulse and from the fully voluntary, charmless production that still bears the traces of difficult labor. This production shall be subjected to the deep process of reconfiguration, meant to efface all the visible signs of effort, to wipe away the undeniable indications of calculation, design, consciousness, making it seem natural[34]. The success of such an attempt greatly depends on the correct treatment applied to words, on their rigorous examination, on their attentive weighing, on their employment according to the requirements of a lucidity which allows for no concession to commonsensical habits or to any kind of mental inertia, since many of them, once rendered banal and devoid of meaning, are unadvisable. “Nous les avons appris ; nous les répétons, nous croyons qu’ils ont un sens… utilisable; mais ce sont des créations statistiques; et par conséquent, des éléments qui ne peuvent entrer sans contrôle dans une construction ou opération exacte de l’esprit, qu’ils ne la rendent vaine ou illusoire”[35].

The crystallization of individual personality is the result of a long simulation, dissimulation and integration process as to the features which are validated by the acknowledgment mechanisms of the society. Similarly, in the case of creation, a certain stability of manner, a certain constancy of the creator’s operating fashion are needed for the final construction of a work, for what Valéry considers to be “une entreprise contre la mobilité, l’inconstance de l’esprit, de la vigueur et de l’humeur”[36]. In order to be successful in this enterprise, the artist must know how to imitate himself, to ensure the continuity of his own style, to chose as models the most remarkable of his productions, striving to prolong their brilliance and to ensure their integration within a systematic vision, chasing any doubt as to the possibility of their accidental coming to being, as to their haphazard emergence, eventually imposing the impression of a conscious and virtuously controlled process[37] and decisively contributing to the absolute triumph of his wish to appear superior to his won being. Noticing an increasingly prominent tendency of the work to achieve not so much a certain aesthetic effect, but mostly recognition for its author, Valéry maliciously notes: “Si une loi de l’Etat obligeait à l’anonymat et que rien ne pût paraître sous un nom, la littérature en serait toute changée, – en supposant qu’elle y survécût”[38].

The post-romantic component of Cioran’s thinking prohibits him to adhere to a vision of the world in which the central part goes to intelligence, while the importance of blind impulse, of the instincts, of the senses is considerably diminished. Strongly influenced by Spengler, steadily turning to Schopenhauer, keeping the imprints of the massive Nietzschean impregnation of his youth, Cioran stays fascinated until the end of his life by the forces of the irrational, by the unpredictability of life, by the uncontrollability of natural rhythms, considering that the triumph of reason is the manifest sign of decadence, of approaching the end of a historical cycle or even the end of humanity. Incapable of following the spontaneous disjunctions of their being, abandoned by the vital force that used to ensure them a serene, organic existence under the badge of a perfectly legible global meaning, people are forced to use the imperfect compass of intelligence, trying to guide themselves in a world they feel hostile, undermined by their lack of confidence and impotence, giving in to pessimism and despair without managing to find any meaning to their own existence. Entrapped by skepticism, deprived of any possible contact with the real sources of creativity because of their instinctive nature, they no longer use anything but doubtful sophisms, alexandrine nuances, conceptual peculiarities, thus celebrating elegance, refinement, artifice as a compensation for the obvious absence of any creative power.

Yet, as aforementioned, Valéry is considered to be one of the champions of such spiritual forms, one of the most radical exponents of an aestheticism fully divorced from reality, arbitrarily performing witty dances of the spirit, hypnotized by the spectacle of his own imprisoning mind which he fails to escape. Even if Cioran repudiates vitalism in his French work, even if he denounces his juvenile exaggerations, opting himself for a radical skepticism suffused with the Oriental idea of universal vacuum, even if he appropriates a series of reflection themes which are completely foreign to his initial preoccupations, he cannot accept an intellectualist perspective such as Valéry’s, he cannot give credit to the victory of form over contents, to the hegemony of calculation, design, lucidity over inconstancy, unpredictability, accident, the amorphous fortune of life.

Cioran is an admirer of the abysmal, of the often monstrous and brutal grandeur of nature but, in exchange, he is a vital critic of man, whose Daedalic and malefic being repulses him, whose shortcomings call for his sarcasm. Cioran stays faithful to the idea that the grandeur of humanity is nothing but a presumptuous hypothesis, impossible to confirm according to the facts of experience. The belief that man can control the course of his life, that he can obey the maxims of reason into minute detail seems risible to him, evidence demonstrating that the individual is a mere girouette, entirely dependent upon the mood-swings of destiny, a humble marionette in the hands of gods. All that man builds is determined by a string of accidents, coincidences, unpredictable series of events and effort, diligence, will plays but a minor part in the economy of hazard. Things work in the same way in what the efforts of the mind are concerned: it is impossible to direct according to rigorous schemes, impossible to subject to the ghostly discipline imagined by a tyrannical ego that finds itself prey to inspiration, chaotic impulses, illness-induced deformations or the peculiar calligraphy of unhappiness. “Une indigestion n’est-elle point plus riche d’idées qu’une parade de concepts? Les troubles d’organes déterminent la fécondité de l’esprit: celui qui ne sentpas son corps ne sera jamais en mesure de concevoir une pensée vivante; il attendra en pure perte la surprise avantageuse de quelque inconvénient…”[39]

Cioran seems to be in accord with Valéry in the respect that, in order to create, the artist needs to distance himself from the mediocrity of his natural state, he must rise above the waste which ordinary life presupposes. Yet, their opinions differ in what concerns the means by which such distancing can be achieved. Valéry supports the exacerbation of man’s intellectual faculties, the conscious effort of intelligence to take possession of all exterior excitement, all accidental impulses and intuitions and process them with a maximum of lucidity, thus obtaining a coherent string of ideas which leads towards a perfectly clear systematic vision. Cioran, on the other hand, believes that what is needed is a radical change, a rummaging of the creative interiority, caused either by the inexplicable thrill of inspiration, or by some major, disease-induced disequilibrium, or by some intense ailment which changes the way in which the world is perceived. What matters to Valéry is the concentration of will, the imperturbable focus of attention, the transformation of the spirit into a sophisticated calculus machinery, into a docile instrument, capable of the most complicated intellectual operations. In Cioran’s case, the essential part is played by the emotional charge, the depth of feeling which causes creative instability, further triggering disorder, exaltation, delirium and favoring the escape from the self, the surpassing of a strictly personal point of view, the capturing of the world’s monstrousness.

In his youth, Cioran was faithful to a perspective deeply influenced by Nietzsche’s attempts to dismiss the classical theories of truth. Fascinated by the incorporation of falsehood, virile lie into the mere definition of the new type of truth, Cioran gradually estranges himself from such approaches and, due to his connections to Indian philosophy, opts for a traditional metaphysical model. In this Buddhist-indebted view, the main opposition is the one between “the real truth” (paramārtha) and “the truth of error” (samavriti), the truth of the salvaged and that of the one who finds himself incapable of escaping the veil of appearances. The former captures the immateriality of the world, the unreality of all gestures, objects and events, while the latter remains spasmodically attached to the contours of reality, unable to discover its emptiness, its essentially apparent character, its lack of substance. Thus, he stays a prisoner to the universe of forms and facts[40].

By adopting such an interpretive principle, Cioran turns into an illusion chaser who finds enjoyment in demonstrating the superfluous nature of all fabrications, the insanity of all projects, the uselessness of the belief in ideals, the immaturity of enthusiasm. This attitude prevents him from sharing Valéry’s vision as to truth’s being a mere product, a construct resulting from a delicate filtering and forging operation, since this vision maintains itself within the realm of “the truth of error” without reaching the level of “the real truth”, without as much as grasping the sole stake of any spiritual enterprise, i. e. capturing universal unreality: “Ce qui importe, ce n’est pas produire mais comprendre. Et comprendre signifie discerner le degré d’éveil auquel un être est parvenu, sa capacité de percevoir la somme d’irréalité qui entre dans chaque phénomène”[41]

Valéry pleas for the overwhelming power of simulation, considering that everything that there is to be found within the sphere of human qualities is determined by intentionality, is the result of effort and labor, represents the triumph of artificiality over naturalness, of construction over indistinctiveness, of form over amorphous matter. Thus, the individual’s personality is nothing but the consequence of this gradual moulding according to social expectations, a compromise between being and appearances in which appearances stand out as winners. Cioran admits to the importance of simulation, he admits to the individuals’ inclination towards disguise, to their carnivalesque instinct, but he does not believe that human being can be totally evicted, that the profound nature of man can be modified by his public antics and thus allowparaître impose its supremacy over être. To him it is obvious that the way in which the society functions encourages conformism, hypocrisy, the obscuring of the individual’s true nature. Yet, this does not lead to the mere transformation of his inner physiognomy, but only to the preservation of a steady redoubling: “Où que j’aille, le même sentiment d’inappartenance, de jeu inutile et idiot, d’imposture, non pas chez les autres, mais chez moi: je feins de m’intéresser à ce qui ne m’importe guère, je joue constamment un rôle par veulerie ou pour sauver les apparences; mais je ne suis pas dans le coup, car ce qui me tient à coeur est ailleurs[42].

In Valéry’s view, simulation fulfils a necessary role, being a civilizing attitude which allows for the essential traits of one’s personality to be fixed, thus also ensuring the necessary conditions for a social life to develop, contributing to the victory of form over chaotic indistinctiveness, imposing predictability as defining element of human relationships. To Cioran, simulation is just a consequence of humanity’s corrupt nature, of its inclination towards scam and masquerade, of the immense vanity that consumes even the most insignificant individuals. In this respect he follows the traditional moralistic line and he does nothing but take down the multiple evidence of such tendencies, note their often ridiculous outcomes, without ever accepting, however, the inevitability of simulation, without being convinced of the fatal nature of adopting a mask. Even if he admits that living within the society without resorting to simulation is almost impossible, he still believes that there is at least one solution to evade its tyranny: perfect solitude, retirement from among the people and, thus, final repudiation of histrionic existence. “Réduis tes heures à un entretien avec toi, et bien mieux avec Dieu. Bannis les hommes de tes pensées, que rien d’extérieur ne vienne déshonorer ta solitude, laisse aux pitres le souci d’avoir des semblables. L’autre te diminue, car il t’oblige à jouer un rôle; supprime de ta vie le geste, confine-toi dans l’essentiel”[43].

It is in this way that social rules impose the acquisition of the science of the mask, and ignoring it automatically triggers isolation and marginalization. Totally dependent upon conventions, perfectly adopting the strategies of duplicity, subtly mastering the techniques of hypocrisy, people are bothered by any step taken outside this sophisticated pattern of camouflage which ensures the stability of their daily life. It is because of this that the reactions against those who tend to question the comfortable habits of dissimulation are merciless. The madman, the main agent of stability dissolution, bothers by means of his complete honesty. He is dangerous because he denounces the principles of the masquerade without any restraints. He is unpredictable since he exposes himself exactly as he is, being incapable of resorting to any sort of disguise. He is thus evicted from the space of possible interaction with other individuals and sent to an asylum[44].

Just like Valéry, Cioran uses the idea of simulation as essential criterion in the delineation between normality and insanity, considering that the onset of the malady determines the loss of social preservation instinct, triggering a display of otherwise concealed infirmity and inner smallness and preventing the taking of any self-protection measures by exhibiting the human being in its brutal nakedness: “X – pourquoi est-il fou? parce qu’il ne déguise, parce qu’il ne peut déguiser jamais son premier mouvement. Tout est chez lui à l’état brut, tout en lui évoque l’impudeur de la vraie nature”[45] The madman knows nothing of the importance of disguise, he is not ready to sacrifice anything on the alter of appearances, being forced to fully conform to the discontinuities of his inner being. In his case, être leaves paraître no chance; it prohibits its emergence, it excludes its right to exist.

To Valéry, the simulation principle governs the whole sphere of art, allowing it to stray from the plain naturalness of reality. The most creators are, according to this vision, those who manage to accomplish such a maneuver, attaining perfection by means of an entirely reason-controlled and supervised process. In Cioran’s case, things are more nuanced. He admits that there is a considerable category of authors to whom intentionality, design, attention, the infinitesimal examination of details prevail, but they do not rank among the great minds. They are mere literary sophists[46], exclusively preoccupied with style, expressivity, incapable of escaping sterility unless by “ce renouvellement continuel que suppose un jeu où la nuance acquiert des dimensions d’idole et où la chimie verbale réussit des dosages inconcevables à l’art naïf”[47]. Their fetishization of writing symbolizes their lack of confidence in experience, the clearest symptom of the radical skepticism they preach. They would rather protect themselves from the void that menaces them by interposing a world of words, by believing that “la réalité est encore plus creuse que sa figuration verbale, que l’accent d’une idée vaut mieux que l’idée, un prétexte bien amené qu’une conviction, une tournure savante qu’une irruption irréfléchie”[48].

The portrait drawn by Cioran to the literary sophist in this 1956 volume shares quite a number of features that were later on to be attributed to Valéry in the never-to-become-a-preface 1968 essay. These features account for the nihilism of such a writer, for his discomfort before experience, feeling, anything that is full of life. It is, however, precisely these attributes that determine Cioran to think that such an author, dependent upon construction and artifice, obediently following reason, immune to any intellectually non-validated sensations or states, shaken by doubts, perpetually haunted by sterility, is unable to generate a truly important work, to put forward a disturbing view of the world. The hegemony of reason within creation seems impoverishing to Cioran, its excesses leading to a leveling of one’s view of existence, to the guilty ignorance of human being’s complexity.

The great creator is not a prisoner of language captive to the spoken, an eternal hostage of his own reason, but an individual that reaches words, expression, language to the very purpose of communicating an exceptional experience, to the end of showing its painful or beastly splendor with the whole intensity of the reality show he is living. To Cioran, such a writer is Dostoïevski, scarred by epilepsy[49] and obsessed with the divine experience, reaching “jusqu’à la limite de la raison, jusqu’au vertige ultime. Il est allé jusqu’à l’effondrement, par ce saut dans le divin, dans l’extase. Pour moi, c’est le plus grand écrivain, le plus profond et qui a à peu près tout compris”[50]

In Valéry’s eyes, genius is an extremely complex machinery whose functions stand in perfect harmony, discipline and hierarchy and support the conscious production of the great work, the emergence of the attentively crystallized form that underlies each truly remarkable vision. In Cioran’s case, the surfacing of genius is the result of some misbalance, of troubled normality, of excess. Indebted in this direction to some considerations made by Lichtenberg[51] and Nietzsche[52], he praises the fertility of disorder, of physiological accidents, the irrational force of the instincts born out of the minds of great men. For this reason, he does not believe in the virtues of lucidity, he deplores the hysteria of introspection, the obsessive self-scrutiny, reckoning that it all does nothing but block the spontaneity of the creative impulse, inserting the lethal inclination towards self-censorship and leading towards sterility: “Ce n’est que dans la mesure où nous ne nous connaissons pas nous-mêmes qu’il nous est possible de nous réaliser et de produire. Est fécond celui qui se trompe sur les motifs de ses acts, qui répugne à peser ses défauts et ses mérites, qui pressent et redoute l’impasse où nous conduit la vue exacte de nos capacités. Le créateur qui devient transparent à lui-même ne crée plus : se connaître, c’est étouffer ses dons et son démon”[53]

His aseptic views on the creative process lead Valéry towards evicting the author’s empirical individuality from the judgment that is exerted upon the work, any biographism seeming irrelevant or even harmful to him by means of its threat against the purity of exclusively intellectual construction. By antithesis, Cioran, an avid consumer of biographies, explores with immense curiosity all the available details of the lives of the personalities that fascinate him, finding enjoyment in inventorying their misfortunes, diseases, vices and peculiarities out of his sheer belief that they represent a privileged means of achieving the full comprehension of their works. Swift’s or Gogol’s impotence, Dostoievksi’s epilepsy, Hölderlin and Nietzsche’s madness are only a few of the episodes upon which he focuses, making his own comments according to his own attempt at characterizing his writing, either violently, explosively, hysterically, or coldly, sardonically, almost indifferently[54].

Cioran’s interest in biographic incidents, in digging the author’s flesh and bones up is doubled by his perspective on creation. On the one hand, he agrees with Valéry in what regards the absolutely unpredictable nature of the birth of ideas, the inscrutable hazard that governs its genesis. Yet, he does not share the latter’s conviction that the intellect can take over such an accidental impulse, controlling and moulding it according to its intentions, consciously inscribing it into a constellation of themes and motifs that allows full emphasis upon its true importance. To Cioran it is obvious that great minds are not used to functioning rigorously, exactly following the steps of a certain method, changing their course into a voluntary enterprise, mastering the chaotic assault of impressions and instincts, rationally blurring the always demonic edges of the world, since acting as such would equal depriving themselves of the whole charge of living, of the entire spectacle of emotions and passions and opting for the mere plainness of abstraction, easy to call upon and forge at any given moment but perfectly indifferent, since “Celui qui pense quand il veut n’a rien à nous dire”[55]. Instead of controlling the metabolism of the idea, instead of subjecting it to intellectual constraints, the creators let themselves possessed by its capricious emergence, they become its slaves, totally dependent upon the decrees of their body and the requirements of the moment: “Les <saisons> de l’esprit sont conditionnées par un rythme organique; il ne dépend pas de <moi> d’être naïf ou cynique: mes vérités sont les sophismes de mon enthousiasme ou de ma tristesse. J’existe, je sens et je pense au gré de l’instant – et malgré moi. Le Temps me constitue; je m’y oppose en vain – et je suis. Mon présent non souhaité se déroule, me déroule; ne pouvant le commander, je le commente; esclave de mes pensées, je joue avec elles, comme un bouffon de la fatalité…”[56]

Since every important work is the product of hazard, the fortunate outcome of circumstances which entirely escape the individual’s capacities of prediction, Cioran shows his belief that “Nous ne devrions parler que de sensations et de visions: jamais d’idées – car elles n’émanent pas de nos entrailles et ne sont jamais véritablementnôtres[57]. Ideas, which people change as often as ties[58], originate in the exterior, they are not organically produced. They are merely used to partially decode the obscure impulses sent by one’s own body, to make the signals of the flesh abyss relatively legible. Neuter in themselves, emotionally colored only due to the magma of feelings and passions that determine their unpredictable emergence, they are often borrowed to express an experience that seems identical but remains, nevertheless, untranslatable.

A fervent enemy of the notion of originality, just like Valéry, Cioran ridicules the efforts paid by a series of artists in order to proclaim their singularity, convinced that “Presque tous les oeuvres sont faites avec des éclairs d’imitation, avec des frissons appris et des extases pillées”[59], considering the pursuit of originality at any cost as an indication of a second hand mind[60]. In this respect, his position resembles the opinions of some of the most important moralists such as La Bruyère, Montaigne ot Vauvenargues: he believes that the requirement of absolute novelty is a mere exaggeration of those who have not understood that the meaning of a writers’ experience is given by his own searches, which can lead him towards a series of conclusions which he shares with some of his predecessors. If the similarities are the result of borrowing, he admits, just as Valéry does, that received influences may be benefic or harmful according to the way in which they are integrated by the author’s spiritual metabolism: “Toute <influence> est mauvaise, tant qu’elles est perceptible,sentie. Si elles est assimilée et surmontée, elle peut être utile.

Oublier tous ceux qu’on a admirés, voilà un impératif salutaire”[61]

Cioran is irritated by the hypertrophy of the self which he notices especially in the case of contemporary writers. He is disgusted by the narcissist voluptuousness they display, by their search for notoriety at any cost and by any means. He feels compelled to distance himself from an attitude which transforms writing into a mere means of social promotion, transforming it into a purely personal stake, without any existential meaning or importance for the others. The man who wrote in his Notebooks that “Ce n’est pas à une oeuvre que j’aspire, c’est à la vérité. Ne pas produire, mais chercher […] Je voudrai être un libérateur. Rendre l’homme plus libre à l’égard de lui-même et du monde”[62], could not accept the outrageous celebration of individuality, the impure cult of subjectivity, regretting, just like Valéry, the absence of anonymity from literature, deploring the supremacy of authorship: “Mes livres, mon oeuvre… Le côté grotesque de ces possessifs.

Tout s’est gâté dès que la littérature a cessé d’être anonyme. La décadence remonte au premier auteur[63]


Translated by Cristina Chevereşan

[1] Paul Valéry, Mauvaises pensées et autres in Oeuvres, II, Paris, Gallimard, 1966, p. 891.

[2] Idem

[3]Iibidem, p. 848.

[4] For this entire analysis cf. Paul Valéry, L’idée fixe in Oeuvres, II, op. cit., p. 258-259.

[5] Paul Valéry, Mauvaises pensées et autres in Oeuvres, II, op. cit., p. 848-849.

[6] Cf. Paul Valéry, Mélange in Oeuvres, I, Paris, Gallimard, 1965, p. 382.

[7] Paul Valéry, Variété in Oeuvres, I,  p. 562.

[8] Paul Valéry, Mélange in Oeuvres, I, p. 392.

[9] Paul Valéry, Tel quel in Oeuvres, II, p. 708.

[10] Paul Valéry, Variété in Oeuvres, I, p. 562.

[11] Idem

[12] Idem, p. 563.

[13] Ibidem, p. 817.

[14] Paul Valéry, Mauvaises pensées et autres in Oeuvres, II, p. 836.

[15] Paul Valéry, Variété in Oeuvres, I, p. 570-571.

[16] Cf. Paul Valéry, Introduction à la Méthode de Léonard de Vinci in Oeuvres, I. p. 1205.

[17] Ibidem, p. 1203.

[18] Paul Valéry, Variété in Oeuvres, I, p. 570

[19] Ibidem, p. 571.

[20] Paul Valéry, Tel quel in Oeuvres, II, p. 546.

[21] Ibidem, p. 500.

[22] Paul Valéry, Mélange, in Oeuvres, I, p. 377.

[23] Paul Valéry, Tel quel in Oeuvres, II, p. 497.

[24] Ibidem, p. 628.

[25] Cf. Paul Valéry, Introduction à la Méthode de Léonard de Vinci in Oeuvres, I. p. 1208.

[26] Paul Valéry, L’idée fixe in Oeuvres, II, p. 261.

[27] Cf. Paul Valéry, Introduction à la Méthode de Léonard de Vinci in Oeuvres, I. p. 1208.

[28] Paul Valéry, Mauvaises pensées et autres in Oeuvres, II, p. 795.

[29] Cf. Paul Valéry, Introduction à la Méthode de Léonard de Vinci in Oeuvres, I. p. 1205.

[30] Paul Valéry, Tel quel in Oeuvres, II, p. 483.

[31] Ibidem, p. 621. “…”

[32] Paul Valéry, Mauvaises pensées et autres in Oeuvres, II, p. 878.

[33] Ibidem, p. 677.

[34] Cf. Paul Valéry, Tel quel in Oeuvres, II, p. 591.

[35] Paul Valéry, L’idée fixe in Oeuvres, II, p. 238.

[36] Paul Valéry, Tel quel in Oeuvres, II, p. 632.

[37] Ibidem, p. 633-634.

[38] Paul Valéry, Mauvaises pensées et autres in Oeuvres, II, p. 805.

[39] Cioran, Précis de decomposition in Oeuvres, Paris, Gallimard, 1995, p. 666-667.

[40] Cf. Cioran, Écartèlement in Oeuvres, p. 1409-1410.

[41] Cioran, Le mauvais démiurge in Oeuvres, p. 1221.

[42] Cioran, Cahiers, p. 43.

[43] Ibidem, p. 50.

[44] Cf. Cioran, Syllogismes de l’amertume in Oeuvres, p. 767.

[45] Cioran, Cahiers, p. 57.

[46] Cf. Cioran, La tentation d’exister in Oeuvres, p. 895.

[47] Ibidem, p. 894.

[48] Ibidem, p. 901.

[49] Cf. Cioran, “Entretien avec Lea Vergine” in Entretiens, Paris, Gallimard, 1997, p. 134.

[50] Cioran, “Entretien avec Léo Gillet” in Entretiens, p. 91.

[51] Cf. Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg, Le miroir de  l’âme, Paris, José Corti, 1997, p. 112.

[52] Cf. Nietzsche, Humane, too humane, aphorism 231.

[53] Cioran, Le mauvais démiurge in Oeuvres, p, 1232-1233.

[54] Cf. Cioran, “Entretien avec Jean-François Duval” in Entretiens, p. 46.

[55] Cioran, Précis de decomposition in Oeuvres, p. 666.

[56] Ibidem, p. 667.

[57] Cioran, Aveux et anathèmes in Oeuvres, p. 1668.

[58] Cf. Cioran, Précis de decomposition in Oeuvres, p. 588.

[59] Cioran, Syllogismes de l’amertume in Oeuvres, p. 752.

[60] Cf. Cioran, Cahiers, p. 138.

[61] Cioran, Cahiers, p. 626.

[62] Ibidem, p. 311.

[63] Cioran, Aveux et anathèmes in Oeuvres, p. 1699.