“The Progress of Irony” and “The Sense That Everything Is Going Wrong” (E. M. Cioran)

THE HUDSON REVIEW, Mars 2013. English translation by Tess Lewis.

The Progress of Irony

An idea’s initial burst sometimes possesses a value that is masked by subsequent corrections. This is, no doubt, one of the reasons Cioran did not publish this text. The first version (ms. 242), published here, is, as a matter of fact, more finished than the second, abandoned version (ms. 243). This text reworks the theme of the chapter “Irony and Self-Irony” in On the Heights of Despair (1934) with its Kierkegaardian accents and seems to anticipate passages in The Temptation of Existence (1956), in which we again find the ideas of the turn back upon one’s self, of the renunciation of health, of masochism, etc. Furthermore, in a crossed-out passage this text treats ironically the “revelations of psychology,” the very source of this modern, now impure, irony. Aurélien Demars.

Advanced though the ancients were in this bitter knowledge, they nonetheless possessed a kind of astonishment, a freshness when faced with the incomprehensibility of existence. [. . .] One cannot imagine Hamlet in Athens or in Rome.1 Self-irony is a modern phenomenon. And this phenomenon has only become more pronounced, more widespread. No matter where we turn, we encounter only ourselves. We are irresistibly aware of the psychological world in which concepts, theories, universes, and the absolute are related to certain more or less perceptible combinations at work within us. The modern individual is his own object; he has no other. All he once searched for or placed outside himself, he now discovers within. Onto what shall he now discharge his bitterness? Such awareness turns him back upon himself; and self-irony becomes a kind of imperative, a self-honesty. We experience this attachment to self, this horror of self, with an exasperation the ancients would have found inconceivable. No modern man is able to make detachment his virtue. Christianity was fundamentally a rebellion against detachment, the virtue prized above all others by the Greco-Romans. And to the extent that detachment is foreign to us, we are Christians unaware of ourselves, survivors of Christianity. This is evident even in our self-irony; instead of representing a distance from ourselves, a form of detachment from and superiority to our misery, it is simply a form of self-torment, a source of agony. And we practice it not to escape ourselves, but to increase our suffering, to chafe and maintain our wounds, to make them flourish, to disguise and refine our ailments. So it was with Hamlet who was the first to give the modern soul its tone. He flagellates and diminishes himself, reviles himself, proclaims his misery, not to escape it but to deepen it; he considers himself ridiculous and draws from this sentiment an extra measure of pride; he finds in it another reason to revel in his suffering. In this way self-irony, instead of marking a distance between us and our self, multiplies the points of contact between the two; it is our way of being present with ourselves, of exacerbating our stupors or our pleasures. Masochism is the only link between us and our self. It is the modern version of the Socratic “Know thyself.” The ancients may have been more unhappy than we are, but on the other hand, they were surely not as ill as we are. Furthermore, they were not burdened with themselves or with the encumbrances and seductions of their “I.” They lived without “ego.” That was the source of their health. Their irony was an objective complaint, a recrimination against the world, against the imperfections of man and the gods, or else it was simply a subtle form of amusement, one to the Sophists’ taste, an intellectual exercise, a shrewd mockery without consequence, a gratuitous smile, a concession to futility. They were frivolous by instinct, not out of boredom. Their irony, whether that of the Sophists or of the tragedians, still had a pure resonance. Ours is hoarse, venomous, sickly; it emanates from our inability to accuse anyone but ourselves; it has revealed the evil in each of us; it is the way in which the subject punishes himself for being what he is since he knows the remedies are contained within himself, but he does not want to have recourse to them. Modern self-irony is the tragic form of rebellion against detachment, it is the renunciation of salvation for the self’s greatest good and greatest ill; it is the accepted loss, the voluptuous abandonment, of salvation… [+]