“A Portrait of Civilized Man” (E. M. Cioran)

The Hudson Review, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 1964), pp. 9-20. Translated by Marthiel Mathews from CIORAN, E. M., “Portrait de l’homme civilisé”, La chute dans le temps, Paris, Gallimard, 1964.

OUR RAGE TO RID THE HUMAN SCENE of everything irregular, unexpected, or mis-shapen, borders on indecency. It may of course be deplorable that certain tribes take pleasure in eating their oversupply of old people, but never will I agree that such picturesque gourmets should be exterminated; after all, we should remember that cannibalism is the very model of a self-sufficient society as well as a practice well suited to appeal one day to a packed planet. However, my aim is not to bemoan the fate of cannibals, harried though they are, living in terror, the great losers in today’s world. Let’s admit it: their case is not exactly impressive. Anyway, they are on the decline; a hardpressed minority stripped of self-confidence, unable to plead their own cause. The situation of illiterates, on the other hand, is entirely different-that considerable mass attached to its own traditions and privileges, warred upon with an unjustified virulence. Is it an evil, in the end, not to know how to read and write? In all honesty, I do not think so. I will go even farther and say this: when the last illiterate has disappeared, then we can put on mourning for man.

The interest which civilized man takes in the so-called backward peoples is more than suspect. Since he cannot stand himself any longer, he unloads on them the surplus of evils that crush him; he urges them to taste of his miseries, entreats them to tackle a destiny he can no longer face alone. When he thinks how lucky they are not to have “evolved,” he resents them with the resentment of a desperado who has been balked and put to rout. What right have they to stay on the sidelines, outside the process of degradation he himself has endured for so long, from which he cannot extricate himself? Civilization, his product and his folly, seems a punishment inflicted on him and he wants to inflict it on others who have so far escaped it. “Come share my calamities; let’s be jointly responsible for my hell”: this is the meaning of his concern for them, such is the ground of his meddling zeal. Worn by his defects and even more by his “enlightenment,” he cannot rest until he has imposed them on people who are happily exempt. This is the way he acted even at a time when he was not yet “enlightened” nor weary of himself; he surrendered to his own greed, to his thirst for adventure and infamy. The Spaniards, at the height of their power, must have felt as much oppressed by the demands of their faith as by the strictures of the Church. The Conquest was their revenge… [Pdf]