“The doubter of doubt” (David Davidar)

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THE HINDU

India, Sunday, August 26, 2001

MY favourite philosopher E.M Cioran was a world class grump. Pictures of him show a gaunt old man with a faint resemblance to that other supreme misanthrope Samuel Beckett. There were other resemblances between the Romanian and the Irishman. They were friends and both lived in exile in Paris. Their writings were spare and invested with the themes of alienation and despair. Indeed, Cioran was frequently compared to Beckett and it was his more famous friend who first brought him to the attention of the wider world.

Cioran died in 1995 at the age of 84. In the course of his long life he produced only a handful of books but I had to read only two, Anathemas and Admirations and History and Utopia to become a confirmed admirer of his work. His books are difficult to find, but they are well worth hunting for.

Superbly translated from the French by Richard Howard, most of them are published by the high quality New York publisher, Arcade, who publish Shashi Tharoor and Tim Parks among others. Indeed, it was Shashi who brought me a couple of new Cioran books when he was in India promoting his novel Riot.

All Gall is Divided is another collection of essays and aphorisms, the form Cioran preferred to work in. In a brief introduction, his translator explains why the aphorism was the perfect vehicle for the philosopher’s unique insights: “A wisdom broken is Francis Bacon’s phrase for the aphorism – the very word has horizon within it, a dividing-line between sky and earth, a separation observed. And there is a further identification to be heard in Eliot’s line: “to be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk/among whispers”: something subversive, something perilous, always, about the aphorism, from the pre-Socratics to Chazal. Yet it ought to be noted that for all its classical analogies with the French epigram as we encounter it in La Rochefoucauld, in Chamfort, in Valery, Cioran’s breviary of estrangement fulfills the tradition with a difference. For these remarks which refuse the comforts of expansion, of explanation, of exfoliation, are nonetheless a narrative, an autobiography even, at least a confession. Not since Nietzsche has any thinker revealed himself so drastically, not since Heraclitus has the necessity of fragments been so deliriously welcomed. Hence my punning title for the syllogisms of bitterness the allusion to Caesar’s partition of France and, finally, Cioran’s dissection of that other gall, the acrimony, the wormwood, the effrontery which is the consequence of “being born”, the one regrettable act.

All Gall is Divided is broken up into 10 sections entitled “Atrophy of Utterance”, “The Swindler of the Abyss” and so on. Cioran would return to these themes again and again during the course of his writing career with a particular emphasis on the melancholy of the human condition, music (he believed this was the greatest form of human expression), religion, civilisation, love and the paradox of life. There is no better way to give you a sense of the great pleasures to be found in the book than to quote a sampling of aphorisms you are likely to find, so here, taken at random, are five which struck me.

Beware of those who turn their backs on love, ambition, society. They will take their revenge for having renounced.

That uncertain feeling when we try to imagine the daily life of great minds. Whatever could it be that Socrates was doing around two in the afternoon?

In a world without melancholy, nightingales would belch.

You cannot protect your solitude if you cannot make yourself odious.

Everything must be revised, even sobs.

These brief aphorisms alternate between larger paragraphs, highly compressed essays in fact, where the philosopher meditates at slightly greater length on some of his starting insights. This is not the sort of book that can be polished off at one go, it needs to be dipped into and savoured and cogitated upon, one entry at a time. Try and obtain a copy, it will make you think.