“Insomnolent Anathemas – E.M. Cioran’s Unbelieving Gift to Theology” (Philip G. Ziegler)

Theology Today75(3), 391-398

Abstract: Over several decades during the second half of the last century, the Romanian-born Parisian intellectual, E.M. Cioran penned a series of uneasy works whose despondent obsession with God is matched only by their utter disavowal of the reality of the divine. Wrestling pessimistically with nihilism in world forged by chronic insomnia, illness, nicotine, and despair, Cioran confronts the theologian with a particularly radical articulation of unbelief hard-won at the ‘verge of existence’, and existence suffered as an ‘accident of God’. This short paper explores the form and substance of Cioran’s biting and aphoristic expression of modern unbelief in an attempt to discern something of its theological significance. Perhaps theology would do well to receive this work as a necessary ascesis of its inapt and faithless contentment and ease with the world? And could it be that theology stands to be schooled in the near impossibility and profundity of hope by the cynicist’s surprising confession that, ‘Each time the future seems conceivable to me, I have the impression of being visited by Grace’?
Keywords: nihilism, creation, suffering, faith, grace

‘To keep the mind vigilant, there is only coffee,
disease, insomnia, or the obsession of death!’

1/ Introduction—Cioran and Theology?

By the time of this death in Paris in 1995, Emile M. Cioran was widely acknowledged as one of the great French literary figures of the 20th century. Born in Romania in 1911, Cioran was the son of a Romanian Orthodox priest and unbelieving mother. His formative childhood years were spent in Sibiu, a small historic market town in Transylvania home to historic German, Hungarian and Romanian speaking peoples. After university studies and a time in which he flirted seriously with the mystical nationalism of the Romanian fascists, Cioran moved to Paris in 1937 to take up a scholarship at the Sorbonne. Paris became his permanent home, and French become the language of his life’s work as a literary essayist and aphorist. The spirit and substance of his writing finds apt expression in the titles of his published books: On the Heights of Despair, The Temptation to Exist, A Short History of Decay, The Trouble with Being Born, All Gall is Divided, Drawn and Quartered, Anathemas and Admirations and The New Gods (Le Mauvais Demiurge), among others. His reputation as a contrarian and provocateur is announced by the title of the now standard account of his life and works by Patrice Bollon entitled Cioran: Heretic.

Cioran has an abiding, agnostic interest in religious themes and texts. His thought moves broadly in the sceptical—even cynical—intellectual stream of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Educated in philosophy in Bucharest during the time when historian of religion Mircea Eliade was the leading light of Romanian intellectual life, Cioran’s essays and collections of aphorisms regularly engage historic Buddhist, Jewish and Christian ideas and texts—including those of various Christian mystics—as he wrestles with the existential and cultural questions that preoccupy him. Cioran could even admit that, in a sense, there was something oddly theological about his corpus. He confesses:

‘I abuse the word God; I use it often, too often. I employ it each time I touch an extremity and need a word to designate what comes after’.

On another occasion he admits that,

At bottom, for me, the act of writing is a sort of dialogue with God. I say with God, but I am not a believer, although I cannot say that I am an unbeliever either. But for me, this meeting with God is in the act of writing, with a solitude that meets another, a solitude in front of another, “God” being more alone than oneself.

This confrontation is decidedly not one of faith. Rather, ‘It is as an informer that I have prowled around God; incapable of imploring Him, I have spied on Him’. The atheistic work of honest reflection demands that, ‘So long as there is a single god standing, man’s task is not done’. And yet, something of the religious attitude haunts him: ‘Like every iconoclast’, he admits, ‘I have broken my idols in order to offer sacrifices to their debris’. Or, as he puts it gnomically, ‘God is, even if He isn’t’. His work as a whole seems to oscillate between two basic registers. As he himself puts it: ‘We should only trust explanations which invoke physiology and theology. Whatever happens between the two is of no importance’.

During the last half of the 20th century Cioran penned a series of uneasy works whose despondent obsession with God is matched only by their utter disavowal of the benevolent reality of the divine. Wrestling pessimistically with nihilism in world forged by chronic insomnia, illness, nicotine, and despair, Cioran confronts the theologian with a particularly radical articulation of unbelief hard-won at the ‘verge of existence’,12 an existence suffered as an ‘accident of God’.

This short essay briefly explores some of Cioran’s biting and aphoristic expressions of modern unbelief in an attempt to discern something of their theological significance. I want to suggest that theology would do well to receive the work of this ‘theologian of reactive wrath’ as a necessary scourge of its own inapt and faithless contentment and ease with the world, and that theologians can be taken to school here concerning the near impossibility of genuine faith and hope.

2/ Revelatory Insomnia—Sleepless Prophecy?

Already as a pupil in Romania, Cioran was beset by insomnia and he suffered from a chronic inability to sleep all his life. At the time of his death, one commentator remarked—with only some exaggeration—that Cioran had not slept for the last fifty years. Cioran himself discussed his condition often:

In my youth there would be weeks during which I never closed by eyes. I lived in the unlived world, I had the sense that Time with all its movements, had concentrated itself within me, where it culminated, where it triumphed. I moved it onward, of course, I was its promoter and bearer, its cause and substance, and it was as an agent and accomplice that I participated in its apotheosis. When sleep departs from us, the unheard-of becomes everyday, easy: we enter it without preparations, inhabit it, wallow in it.

Poetically addressing his tormentor on another occasion, he writes:

Insomnia, you … in a single night grant more knowledge than days spent in repose, and, to reddened eyelids, reveal yourself a more important event than the nameless diseases or the disasters of time! … I appealed to philosophy, but there is no idea which comforts in the dark, no system which resists those vigils. The analyses of insomnia undo all certainties.

The experience was tortuous: ‘What is that one crucifixion compared to that daily kind any insomniac endures?’ screams one aphorism. For this was a ‘special kind of sleeplessness that produces an indictment of birth’ itself.19 Or, as he put it in another place, ‘And God saw that that light was good’: such is the opinion of mortals, with the exception of the sleepless, for whom it is an aggression, a new inferno more pitiless than the night’s’.

Cioran ‘made insomnia a laboratory’, and all of his writing arises from this place of exhausted perspicacity. Grief and suffering accumulate without relief or remittance as insomnia converts all our pain ‘into a blow of fate, [and] stands vigil over our wounds and keeps them from flagging’. Insomnia delivers him from the distractions and comforting conceits of modern bourgeois life—indeed from the numbing and deluding comforts that a well-rested life itself affords—and forces a confrontation with the self and the world at once brutal, unrelenting, liminal and lucid. Cioran’s long fascination with the literature of mystical experience suggests that he conceives of his own harrowed perceptions as an analogy—and perhaps also parody—of such extremes of insight. An exhausted ‘lucidity’ concerning the terrible actuality of existence was the unwelcome and discomforting gift, one that produced in him a permanent ‘affront at
being born’. The burden of his entire corpus is to communicate the distilled ‘discomfort and ambiguity’ of this prophetic lucidity to his readers. The very antithesis of Job’s theological comforters, Cioran writing looks to sharpen and amplify suffering by unveiling its depth and scope, inescapability, and meaninglessness. Cioran summarised his vocation once in this saying: ‘Lucidity’s task: to attain to a correct despair, and Olympian ferocity’. As Sloterdijk comments, his unparalleled clear-sightedness in the disenchantment of all positive and utopian constructs has its basis in the pervasive stigma of his existence’… [PDF]