The New York Times, March 14, 1971
E. M. Cioran, two among whose half‐dozen books are now, with the publication of “The Fall Into Time,” available in English, is a brilliant and original exponent of a rare genre, the philosophical essay. The taste for such writing, and especially for Cioran’s, can for most of us only be an acquired one, but it is well worth acquiring. Quite apart from the inherent satisfaction of encountering a genuine style, Cioran offers a form of intellectual experience that helps to balance the preoccupations of an uneasy time.
His titles are the first indication of the complex and quizzical attitude he takes toward the world. “The Temptation to Exist” was first published in France in 1956, at the tail‐end of the popularity of existentialism and was published here in 1968; the phrase may be read as a commentary, as well as having straightforward meaning when its terms are understood. What Cioran means by “exist” is best indicated by his use of it: “Carpathian shepherds have made a much deeper impression on me than the professors of Germany, the wits of Paris. I have seen Spanish beggars, and I should like to have been their hagiographer. They had no need to invent a life for themselves: they existed; which does not happen in civilization.” Temptation, on the other hand, is what the saints suffered, against which they developed the practice of ashesis, or spiritual exercise; they came to love their temptations, without which the exercises would no longer have made sense.
So Cioran, trapped—as we all are —in the inauthenticities of civilization and of language, represents to himself the authenticity of barbarism and of silence (the beggars, the shepherds) as genuinely desirable state; and yet to relapse into it, into pure existence, would deprive him of the acute consciousness of his condition which is the object of his own ashesis. Whatever the truth of that condition, even if it involves witnessing the disintegration of the Western World, he cannot renounce the satisfaction that comes from being aware—and being aware that he is aware—of the historical situation, of the character of men and of nations. Nor can he resist a second temptation, to write, even though he claims to hate his actions—and clearly savors the paradox this involves.
So the temptations are fortunate, and so—but not for the usual reasons—is the Fall. If God had had better foresight, the Fall might never have occurred: “No sooner had Adam tasted the forbidden fruit than God, understanding at last whom He was dealing with, lost His head. By putting the Tree of Knowledge in the middle of the Garden, by boasting of its merits, and especially its dangers, He had committed a grave imprudence, had anticipated his creature’s innermost desire.” The Fall was responsible for the gift of self‐awareness Cioran so much values; it made history possible. “Cast by knowledge into time, we were thereby endowed with a destiny.” “The Fall Into Time” is a meditation on the course of human history, which has, as Cioran sees it, produced not the slightest improvement in man’s tot. “He should have confined himself to the flint and, by way of technical refinements, the wheelbarrow”; it would be better to “die of our diseases and not of our remedies.” Technological progress, like religious conversion, is something people force on other people in order to make sure that we all share the same miseries—there is nothing at all benign in assistance to underdeveloped coun tries, the only places where “vestiges of humanity are still to be found.”
“The Temptation to Exist” is made up of shorter pieces, on Western civilization, on the Jews, on the writer, on the novel, on mystics and apostles and philosophers, all with Cioran’s special brand of ambiguity, his taste for the indirect and the inverted. He comes to the defense of Judas (“He dreamed of equaling Jesus, of counterbalancing him in evil; in good, with such a competitor, there was no way for Judas to distinguish himself”), he excoriates St. Paul (“Accountable for our religious and ethical prejudices, he has determined the norms of our stupidity”). He is above all self‐possessed, whether in amusement or anger.
The business of presenting Cioran to an English‐speaking public has involved three other people, all with literary reputations of their own. Richard Howard’s translations are superlatively good, so good that Cioran at once acquires a character in English, not spoiled by any intrusion of strangeness. A Rumanian by birth, he made a conscious decision, as an exile in Paris at the age of 36, to write in French. The selfdiscipline in which this involved him made him acutely aware of his writing, and this awareness pervades it and gives it an implicit double structure; to have brought this over into English is an accomplishment for which Mr. Howard cannot be too highly praised.
Susan Sontag and Charles Newman have contributed prefaces to “The Temptation to Exist” and “The Fall Into Time” respectively. While Mr. Newman’s essay, with its unnervingly appropriate epigraphs from Artaud, stands in its own right as a piece of critical Literature worth reading alongside Cioran, Miss Sontag’s should on no account be read until afterwards, if then. Only when Cioran has been absorbed can it be seen just how misleading her treatment of him is.
Inscribing him with heavy‐handed seriousness (“the Serious, that sin which nothing redeems,” says Cioran) in the history of philosophy, invoking affinities and contrasts, with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Beckett, Cage, of the kind that Cioran himself, by the very sparseness of his references, clearly seeks to escape, and providing exegeses that are at times in flat contradiction to his explicit meanings (e.g., of existence as “a certain kind of difficult thinking”—that is surely not what the shepherds were doing), she manages to miss the point by a wide margin. Cioran deserved a better herald for his first appearance in English.
One has to be in the mood for Cioran, willing to suspend a certain critical attitude in order to see through his eyes. These philosophical essays are not after all essays in philosophy—they are at once too assertive and too casual. That is why the comparison with Nietzsche and Wittgenstein is so ludicrous: Cioran has none of Nietzsche’s moral passion or concern for the future, none of Wittgenstein’s painstaking care for distinctions of meaning.
“All my books,” he says, “are more or less autobiographical — a rather abstract form of biography, I admit”; their value lies in their being the autobiography of a man whose sensibilities are more highly developed than and far in advance of our own. “In advance” relatively speaking—we may not think it either desirable or necessary to follow or agree with Cioran, we may not even like him much; he tends to overdo his detachment, his style may come to seem too rich, we may not wish to be distracted for long from our own less reflective involvement in the world.
But once read, Cioran cannot fail to provoke reflection; in fact, he insistently demands it. And that, given the usual pace of our lives, is no small service.