The New York Times, May 23, 1976
These two books are almost twins, although at first sight they may appear very remote from each other, since they emerge from very different cultural backgrounds. Both authors are now in their early sixties and use French as their literary language, though it is not in the full sense, native to either. Edmond Jabes is a Jew who, according to the biographical details given on the cover of his book, spent the first 44 years of his life in Egypt and only moved to Paris after the Suez Crisis. E. M. Cioran is the son of a priest of the Sreek Orthodox Church in Carpathia, And appears to have lived most of his writers, then, are examples of linguistic alienation and reintegration; both, presumably, have chosen a medium which is to some extent foreign to them, and yet they have made it their own to the point of being hailed as remarkable French writers by certain wholly French critics.
Both, too, have opted for the typical French form of the aphorism, the maxim, the short lyrical or reflective paragraph, which may remain a poetic fragment or can, on occasions, develop into a succinct moral fable. And, more important still, their subject‐matter is similar, in that it can be defined as near‐religious Absurdism, seen, in the case of Jabes, from the point of view of a Jew who sympathizes with certain Jewish mystics, without being himself perhaps wholly a believer. and, in the case of Cioran, from the point of view of a non‐believer, conditioned by Christianity and strongly attracted by a faith he cannot accept. In other words, both Jabes and Cioran are would‐be mystics, full of religious awareness, who cannot take the leap into faith: or, if Jabes has taken it, anchored in belief.
This accounts for the intense pessimism of both writers, a pessimism only slightly relieved by the felicity of the language in which they express themselves. The light of Israel is a scream of the infinite” is one of Jabes’s aphorisms, conveying the feeling that the Jews are a chosen people in the sense that they are particularly aware of the incomprehensible nature of the Deity, if He exists. There is a parallel in Cioran’s book: “A cry means something only in a created universe. If there is no creator, what is the good of calling attention to yourself?” Yet Cioran is uttering a cry, because this aphorism is immediately qualified by another: “God: a disease we imagine we arc cured of, because no one dies of it nowadays.” Actually, it could be said that both Jabes and Cioran are dying of the disease at every moment (“A book is a postponed suicide,” declares Cioran); they are both sick with the problem of the Absent God, and their writings are documents about this state.
If there is an important difference between them, it is that Jabes tends to attribute to Jewishness what Cioran sees as being characteristic of the human condition in general. The metaphysical alienation of man in the Absurd universe means that nationhood, even when rooted in a traditional geographical setting, such as Rumania, must be perceived as an accidental, contingent state, inadequate to satisfy the individual’s craving for an Absolute. No doubt, the basic reason for the creation of modern Israel was the Jewish urge to be located in a particular place, to feel a necessary connection between the community and the land, and thus to counteract the uprootedness of the diaspora. However, nothing that JabLbs says in he himself has any awareness of modern Israel as providing a solution to the metaphysical problem of alienation. He continues to see the Jews as a supra‐national community bound only by the Word, that is, by language, Jewish tradition and the sense of being different:
“The Jewish world is based on written law, on a logic of words one cannot deny.
“So the country of the Jews on the scale of their world, because it is a book.
“Every Jew lives within a personified word, which allows him to enter into all written words.
“Every Jew lives in a key‐word, a word of pain, a password, which the rabbis comment on. … “
Cioran, for his part, while frequently referring to his Carpathian origins, emphasizes that he always felt an urgent desire to achieve some form of satisfaction that being Rumanian did not give him. At times he imagined that he might be Spanish, or Russian, or French, but in the end he says that the dream of achieving integration as some “other” was a pure illusion. In this sense, all Absurdists nre honorary Jews, since they are foreigners in their own country as well as elsewhere: “All my life, hnve lived with the feeling that have been kept from my true place. If the expression ‘metaphysical exile,’ had no meaning, my existence alone would afford it one.”
For the rest, one could take a typical paragraph from Jabes and, simply by substituting “anguished Absurdist” for the term “Jewish,” make it coincide with Cioran’s harrowing account of the anguish of living: “Being Jewish means having to justify your existence. It means having the same sleepless nights in common, suffering the same insults. It means desperately looking for the same buoy, the same helping hand. It means swimming, swimming, swimming, in order not sink.”
It has to be admitted that the only pleasure to be derived from reading these two books is the satisfaction of total despair. Both writers agree that the human hunger for knowledge is out of all proportion to what can he known about the meaning of life. In fact, as an English Absurdist writer once remarked: “Knowledge itself can be defined as detailed awareness of unsolved problems.” This, indeed, why Jabes’s volume is titled “The Book of Questions.”
We can ask questions ad infinitum about God, the purpose of man and the problem of evil, and innumerable priests and rabbis have had their say, but we cannot expect any answers from them other than beautifully sonorous rephrasings which blur the points at issue. Man, as Cioran emphasizes in comparing us with our nearest cousins, the primates, is a peculiar animal in that he fills his leisure hours with such unanswerable metaphysical interrogation instead of taking life mindlessly as it comes. And Cioran would be the first to admit that he himself is exceptionally peculiar, since he has now published some six or seven books of thoughts and maxims in which he repeats exactly the same Absurdist philosophy with admirable relentlessness. He may have found a pseudo‐home in the French language, but he has achieved no metaphysical reintegration, and could obviously never conceive of any such solution to his anguish.
Of course, if the pessimism of Jabes and Cioran appears too bleak, one can console oneself with the thought that various reactions to the Absurd and the Absent God are possible, according to one’s temperament. After uttering a few “screams to the infinite,” one may settle for lyrical enjoyment and limited human understanding of the non‐transcendental, without giving the infinite much further thought. There are cheerful Absurdists, although Jabes and Cioran are not among them. ■
The Book of Questions
By Edmond Jabès.
Translated from the French by Rosemary Waldrop. 175 pp. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. Cloth. $12. Paper, $4.95.
The Trouble With Being Born
By E. M. Cioran.
Translated from the French by Richard Howard. 212 pp. New York The Viking Press. $8.95.
John Weightman is professor of French at Westfield College, London University and author of “The Concept of the Avant‐Garde.”