“Parisian Buddhism: Cioran’s exercises” (Peter Sloterdijk)

The last figure I wish to present in these introductory reflections, the Romanian aphorist Emile M. Cioran, who was born in 1911 and lived in Paris from 1937 to 1995, is likewise part of the great turn that is at issue here. He is an important informant for us, because one can see in his work how the informalization of asceticism progresses without a loss of vertical tension. In his own way, Cioran too is a hunger artist: a man who fasts metaphorically by abstaining from solid food for his identity. He too does not overcome himself, rather like Kafka’s protagonist – following his strongest inclination, namely disgust at the full self. As a metaphorical faster, all he ever does is to show that refusal is the foundation of the great, demonstrating the unfolding of scepticism from a reservation of judgement to a reservation about the temptation to exist.

To approach the phenomenon of Cioran, it is best to take two statements by Nietzsche as a guideline:

Whoever despises himself still respects himself as one who despises.

Moral: what sensible man nowadays writes one honest word about himself? He must already belong to the Order of Holy Foolhardiness.

The latter remark refers to the almost inevitably displeasing nature of all detailed biographies of great men. Even more, it describes the psychological and moral improbability of an honest self-portrayal. At the same time, it names the one condition that would make an exception possible; one could, in fact, view Cioran as the prior of the prospective order imagined by Nietzsche. His holy foolhardiness stems from a gesture that Nietzsche considered the most improbable and least desirable: a rejection of the norms of discretion and tact, to say nothing of the pathos of distance. Nietzsche only approached this position once in own work, when he practised thge ‘cynicism’ necessary for an honest self-portrayal in the ‘physiological’ passages of Ecce Homo – immediately labelling this gesture as ‘world-historical’ to compensate for the feeling of embarrassment through the magnitude of the matter. The result was more like baroque self-praise than any indiscretion towards himself, however – assuming that self-praise was not a deeper form of exposure on this occasion. The rest of the time, Nietzsche remained a withdrawn prophet who only perceived the dis inhibitions he foresaw through the crack of a door.

Whoever, like Cioran, dated themselves after Nietzsche was condemned to go further. The young Romanian followed Nietzsche’s lead not only by heading the Order of Holy Foolhardiness, along with other self-exposers such as Michel Leiris and Jean-Paul Sartre; he also realized the programme of basing the final possibility of self-respect on contempt for oneself. He was able to do this because, despite the apparently unusual nature of his intention, he had the zeitgeist on his side. The epochal turn towards making the latent explicit took hold of him, and led him to commit thoughts to paper that no author would have dared formulate a few years earlier. In this turn, the ‘honest word about himself’ postulated yet excluded in practice by Nietzsche became an unprecedented offensive power. Mere honesty becomes a mode of writing for ruthlessness towards oneself. One can no longer be an autobiographer without being an autopathographer – which means publishing one’s own medical file. To be honest is to admit what one lacks. Cioran was the first who stepped forward to declare: ‘I lack everything – and for that reason, everything is too much for me.’

The nineteenth century had only pushed the genre of the ‘honest word’ to its limits once, in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, published in 1864. Nietzsche’s reaction to this work is well known. Cioran worked for half a century on his notes from the attic, in which he treated his only subject with admirable monotony: how to continue when one lacks everything and everything is too much. Early on, he saw his chance as an author in donning the coat offered by Nietzsche; he had already slipped into it during his Romanian years, and never took it off again. If Nietzsche interpreted metaphysics as a symptom of suffering from the world and an aid to fleeing from it, Cioran accepted this diagnosis without the slightest attempt to formulate an opposing argument. What he rejected was Nietzsche’s flight in the opposite direction: the affirmation of the unaffirmable. For Cioran, the Übermensch is a puerile fiction, a puffed-up caretaker who hangs his flag out of the while the world is as unacceptable as it always has been. Who would speak of the eternal recurrence, when existing once already means existing once too often?

In his student years, Cioran had experimented for a time with the revolutionary affirmations typical of the time and drifted about in the circles of Romanian right-wing extremists. He took to the fashionable mysticism of general mobilization and to political vitalism, which was praised as a cure for scepticism and an excessive preoccupation with one’s inner life. All this invited him to seek salvation in the phantasm of the ‘nation’ – a close relative of the spectre now active as ‘returning religion’.

Cioran abandoned this position – assuming it ever was one – before long. In time, his increasing disgust with its hysterical excursions into positivity restored his clear sightedness. When he moved to Paris in 1937 to begin an almost sixty-year period of hermit-like existence there, he was not entirely cured of the temptation to participate in great history, but he did increasingly leave behind the exaltations of his youth. The basic aggressive-depressive mood that had always characterized him was now expressed in other forms. During this phase, Cioran succeeded in gaining a lasting foothold in the genre of the ‘honest word about himself’.

The impossibility of killing or killing myself caused me to stray into the field of literature. It is this inability alone that made a writer out of me.

Never again would he use the language of commitment he had adopted in his Romanian days with the talent of the pubescent imitator. The blind admiration he had once felt for Germany and its brutal shift disappeared with it. ‘If there is one illness of which I have been cured, it is that one.’72 For the cured man, part of speaking an honest word about his own illness is the admission that he sought to heal himself by dishonest means. Liberated from this evil once and for all, he devoted himself to the task of inventing the writer Cioran, who would set up a business using the psychopathic capital he had discovered in himself as a youth. The figure that created itself in those days could have come from one of Hugo Ball’s novels: it presents a ‘jostled human’, the vaudeville saint, the philosophical clown who expands despair and the disinclination to make anything of himself into a theatre revue.

The secularization of asceticisms and the informalization of spirituality can be observed in Cioran’s ‘life’s work’ in the most concentrated form possible. In his case, the central European existentialism of defiance was expressed not in an existentialism of committed resistance, but rather in an endless series of acts of disengagement. The oeuvre of this existentialist of refusal consists of a succession of rejection letters to the temptations to involve oneself and take a stance. Thus his central paradox crystallizes ever more clearly: the position of the man with no position, the role of the protagonist with no role. Cioran had already attained stylistic mastery with the first of his Parisian books, the 1949 text Precis de decomposition – translated into German by Paul Celan in 1953 under the title Lehre vom Zerfall (English title: A Short History of Decay]. Cioran had certainly absorbed the spirit of the Without period to lasting effect; the crutches he wanted to break, however, were those of identity, belonging and consistency. Only one basic principle convinced him: to be convinced by nothing. From one book to the next he continued his existentialist floor gymnastics, whose kinship with the exercises of Kafka’s fictional characters is conspicuous. His number was fixed from the start: it is that of the hungover marginal figure who struggles not only through the city, but rather in the universe as a homeless (sans abri), stateless (sans papier) and shameless (sans gene) individual. It is not for nothing that his impressive collection of autobiographical utterances is entitled Cafard [Snitch/Cockroach/Moral Hangover] in the German edition. As a practising parasite, Cioran followed on from the Greek meaning of the word: parasitoi, ‘people who sit at a spread table’, was what Athenians called guests who were invited to contribute to the company’s entertainment. The Romanian emigre in Paris did not find it difficult to fulfil such expectations. In a letter to his parents he wrote: ‘Had I been taciturn by nature, I would have starved to death long ago.’ Elsewhere he states: ‘All our humiliations come from the fact that we cannot bring ourselves to die of hunger.’

Cioran’s aphorisms read like a practically applicable commentary on Heidegger’s theory of moods, that is to say the atmospheric impregnations of the individual and collective ‘thymos’ that ‘lend’ existence an a priori pre-logical tinge. Neither Heidegger nor Cioran went to the trouble of discussing the lending and the lender of moods as extensively as the significance of the phenomenon would demand – presumably because both tended to break off psychological analysis and move on quickly to the sphere of existential statements. In truth, Cioran accepts his aggressive-depressive disposition as the primal atmospheric fact of his existence. He accepts that he is fated to experience the world primarily in dystonic timbres: weariness, boredom, meaninglessness, tastelessness, and rebelious anger towards everything that is the case. He frankly confirms Nietzsche’s diagnosis that the ideals of metaphysics should be viewed as the intellectual products of physical and psychophysical illness. By taking the approach of speaking ‘an honest word about himself’ further than any author before him, he openly admits that his concern is to offset the ‘failed creation’. Thinking does not mean thanking, as Heidegger suggests; it means taking revenge.

It was only with Cioran that the thing Nietzsche had sought to expose was fulfilled as if the phenomenon had existed from time immemorial: a philosophy of pure ressentiment. But what if such a philosophy had only become possible through Nietzsche’s influence? Here the German-born existentialism of defiance changes – bypassing the French existentialism of resistance, which Cioran despised as a shallow trend – into an existentialism of incurability with crypto-Romanian and Dacian-Bogomilian shades. This shift only came to a halt at the threshold of Asian inexistentialism. Though Cioran, marked by European vanitas, played throughout his life with a feeling of all encompassing unreality, he could never quite bring himself to follow Buddhism in its abandonment of the postulation of reality, and with it that of God. The latter, as is well known, serves to guarantee the reality we know through a ‘last reality’ that is hidden from us? Though he felt drawn to Buddhism, Cioran did not want to subscribe to its ontology. He not only loathed the reality of the world, but also intended to take advantage of it; he therefore had to accept the reality of reality, even if it was only sophistically. He neither wanted to save himself nor to let anyone else save him. His entire thought is a complaint about the imposition of requiring salvation.

One could pass over all this as a bizarre breeding phenomenon in the biotopes of Parisianism after 1945, were it not for the fact that it brings to light a generally significant tendency that forces a radical change of conditions on the planet of the practising. Cioran, as noted above, is a key witness to the ascetologically far-reaching shift that we are thematizing as the emergence of anthropotechnics. This shift draws our attention to the informalization of spirituality that I said we should grasp as a complementary counter-tendency to the de-spiritualization of asceticisms. Cioran is a new type of practising person whose originality and representative nature are evident in the fact that he practises rejecting every goal-directed way of practising. Methodical exercises, as is well known, are only possible if there is a fixed practice goal in sight. It is precisely the authority of this goal that Cioran contests. Accepting a practice goal would mean believing – and ‘believing’ refers here to the mental act whereby the beginner anticipates the goal.

This running forwards to the goal is the fourth module of the ‘religious’ behavioural complex. The anticipation generally takes place as follows: one looks at someone perfect, from whom one receives, incredulous and credulous at once, the message that one could be the same one day. We will see in later chapters how the use of this inner operation set armies of practising humans in motion over millennia. Without the module of running forwards to the goal there can be no vita contemplativa, no monastic life, no swarm of departures to other shores, no wanting to be the way someone greater once was. One can therefore not emphasize enough that the most effective forms of anthropotechnics in the world come from yesterday’s world – and the genetic engineering praised or rejected loudly today, even if it becomes feasible and acceptable for humans on a larger scale, will long remain a mere anecdote compared to the magnitude of these phenomena.

The believer’s running-ahead into perfection is not Cioran’s concern. He certainly has a passionate ‘interest’ in the religious texts that speak of perfection and salvation, but he will not carry out the believing operation as such, the anticipation of one’s own being-ready-later. His non-belief thus has two sides: that of not being able, because his own prevailing mood corrodes the naivete required for the supposition of perfection, and that of not being willing, because he has adopted the stance of the sceptic and does not want to abandon this definitive provisional state in favour of a position. His only option, then, is to experiment with the leftovers. He is forced to play on an instrument for which any purposeful training would be futile – the detuned instrument of his own existence. Yet it is precisely his performance on the unplayable instrument that shows the unsuppressible universality of the practising dimension: for, by practising in the absence of a suitable instrument, the ‘anti-prophet’ develops an informal version of mastery.

He becomes the first master of not-getting-anywhere. Like Kafka’s hunger artist, he turns his aversion into a virtuoso performance and develops the corresponding form of skill for his carard. Even in this form one hears the appeal that returns in all artiste dam: ‘I always wanted you to admire it … ‘ While Kafka’s fasting master waits until the end before uttering the contrary injunction ‘you shouldn’t admire it’, Cioran provides the material for demystifying his art from the outset by revealing it on almost every page as the act of letting oneself go under the compulsion of one’s prevailing mood. It is this mood speaking when Cioran remarks: ‘I am incapable of not suffering.’ ‘My books express an attitude to life, not a vision.’ He felt a contemptuous suspicion towards the possibility of therapeutically modifying attitudes towards life; he lived off the products of his disposition, after all, and could hardly have afforded an attempt to change it.

In contributing to the discovery that even letting oneself go can be art, and that, if it is accompanied by the will to skill, it also requires training, Cia ran helped the Order of Holy Foolhardiness to find a set of rules. It is preserved in his Precis de decomposition, this book of peculiar exercises that, as I intend to show, formulates the true charter of modern ‘culture’ as an aggregate of undeclared asceticisms – a book that exceeds any binding. The extent of Cioran’s own awareness of his role in translating spiritual habitus into profane discontent and its literary cultivation is demonstrated in A Short History of Decay (whose title could equally have been rendered as ‘A Guide to Decay’), the work that established his reputation. Originally this collection was to be entitled Exercices negatifs – which could refer both to exercises in negation and anti-exercises. What Cioran presented was no less than a set of rules intended to lead its adepts onto the path of uselessness. If this path had a goal, it would be: ‘To be more unserviceable than a saint … ‘.

The tendency of the new set of rules is anti-stoic. While the stoic manner does everything in its power to get into shape for the universe – Roman Stoicism, after all, was primarily a philosophy for civil servants, attractive for those who wanted to believe that it was honourable to hold out in the place assigned by providence as a ‘soldier of the cosmos’ – the Cioranian ascetic must reject the cosmic thesis as such. He refuses to accept his own existence as a component of a well-ordered whole; it should rather serve to prove that the universe is a failure. Cioran only accepts the Christian reinterpretation of the cosmos as creation to the extent that God comes into play as the impeachable cause of a complete fiasco. For a moment, Cioran comes close to Kant’s moral proof of God’s existence, albeit with the opposite result: the existence of God must necessarily be postulated because God has to apologize for the world.

The procedure Cioran develops for his anti-exercises is based on the elevation of leisure to a practice form for existential revolt. What he calls ‘leisure’ is actually a conscious drift through the emotional states of the manic-depressive spectrum unencumbered by any form of structured work – a method that anticipates the later glorification of the dérive, the act of drifting through the day espoused by the situationists of the 1950s. Conscious life in a state of drift amounts to a practising reinforcement of the sense of discontinuity that belonged to Cioran’s disposition because of his moodiness. The reinforcing effect is further heightened dogmatically by the bellicose thesis that continuity is a ‘delusional idea’ – it would have sufficed to call it a construct. Hence existence means feeling ill at ease at constantly new now-points.

The literary form that corresponds to the punctualism of Cioran’s self-observation, which alternates between moments of contraction and diffusion, is the aphorism, and its publicistic genre the aphorism collection. The author establishes a relatively simple and stable grid of six or eight themes early on, using it to comb his states in the drift and move from an experiential point to a corresponding thematic node. With time, the themes – like partial personalities or editorial offices working alongside one another – develop a life of their own that enables them to continue growing self-sufficiently without having to wait for an experiential occasion. The ‘author’ Cioran is merely the chief editor who adds the finishing touches to the products of his typing rooms. He produces books by compiling the texts provided by his inner employees. They present their material in irregular sessions – aphorisms from the blasphemy department, observations from the misanthropy studio, gibes from the disillusionment section, proclamations from the press office of the circus of the lonely, theses from the agency for swindling on the edge, and poisons from the editorial office for the despisal of contemporary literature. Formulating the thought of suicide is the only job that remains in the chief editor’s hands; this involves the practice on which all further sequences of repetition depend. This thought alone permits, from one crisis to the next, the restoration of the feeling that one is still sovereign even in misery – a feeling that provides discontented life with a minimum of stability. In addition, those responsible for the different themes know what the neighbouring offices are producing, meaning that they increasingly quote and align themselves with one another. The ‘author’ Cioran simply invents the book titles that hint at the genre – syllogisms, curses, epitaphs, confessions, lives of the saints or guidelines for failure. He also provides the section headings, which follow a similar logic. In everyday life he is much less of a writer than a reader, and if there was one activity in his life that, from a distance, resembled a regular employment or a formal exercise, it was the reading and rereading of books that served as sources of comfort and arguments to be rebutted. He read the life of St Teresa of Avila five times in the original Spanish. The numerous readings are inserted into the process of the anti-exercises and, together with the memories of his own words, form a bundle of interactions to the nth degree.

The ‘negative exercises’ of the Romanian ‘trumpery Buddha’ – as he terms himself in All Gall Is Divided – are landmarks in the recent history of spiritual behaviour. All they require now is explication as valid discoveries, beyond the chummy comments about the prevailing mood that have dominated the reception of his work thus far. The scepticism attributed to the author in accordance with some of his own language games is anything but ‘radical’ – it is virtuosic and elegant. Cioran’s approach may seem monotonous, but it almost never leads to the dullness that characterizes radicalisms. What he says and does serves to raise his suffering to the level of skill that corresponds to his abilities. Cioran’s work appears far less self-contradictory as soon as one notes the emergence of the practice phenomenon – so once again we have ‘one of the broadest and longest facts that exist’ in an unusual declination. Even if his prevailing mood was that of a ‘passive-aggressive bastard’ – as group therapists occasionally put it in the 1970s – his ethos was that of a man of exercises, an artiste who even made a stunt out of sluggishness, who turned despair into an Apollonian discipline and letting oneself go into an etude almost classical in manner.

The effective history of Cioran’s books shows that he was immediately recognized as a paradoxical master of exercises. Naturally they only spoke to a small number of readers, but resonated very strongly with them. The small band of intensive recipients even discovered in the writings of this infamous author something whose existence he would probably have denied – a brotherly vibration, a hidden tendency to give the ‘Trappist Order without faith’, of which he playfully and irresponsibly considered himself a member, a slightly denser consistency. There was a secret readiness in him to give advice to the despairing who were even more helpless than himself – and a far less concealed inclination to become famous for his exercises in escape from the world. While he may have resisted the tentation d’exister more or less resolutely – even in brothels, even in chic society – he was willing, with all due discretion, to succumb to the temptation of becoming a role model. It is thus not unreasonable to see in Cioran not merely the apprentice of an informalized asceticism, but also an informal trainer who affects others from a distance with his modus vivendi. While the ordinary trainer – as defined above – is the one ‘who wants me to want’, the spiritual trainer acts as the one who does not want me not to want. When I want to give up, it is he who advises against it. I will only point out that Cioran’s books provided an effective form of suicide prevention for numerous readers – something that is also said of personal conversations with him. Those seeking advice may have sensed how he had discovered the healthiest way of being incurable.

I read Cioran’s output of ‘negative exercises’ as a further indication that the production of ‘high culture’, whatever that may mean in specific terms, has an indispensable ascetic factor. Nietzsche made it visible by reminding his readers of the immense system of rigid conditioning on which the superstructure of morality, art and all ‘disciplines’ is based. This asceticism-based thought only becomes clearly visible when the most conspicuous standard exercises in culture, known as ‘traditions’, find themselves in the difficult situation of Kafka’s hunger artist – as soon as one can say that interest in them ‘has markedly diminished during these last decades’, the conditions of possibility of their survival will themselves become conspicuous. When interest in a form of life dwindles, the ground on which the visible parts of the constructions erected themselves is revealed here and there.

SLOTERDIJK, Peter, You must change your life. Transl. by Wieland Holban. Malden: Polity Press, 2013, p. 73-82. [PDF]