Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1991
Anathemas and Admirations
By E.M. Cioran
Translated from the French by Richard Howard
Arcade, 256 pages, $22.95
People who read philosophers for entertainment (probably a larger constituency than the average American publisher would estimate) want thinkers who can also write, and such readers have had hard slogging in the 20th Century. Wittgenstein`s life is more interesting than his work, Heidegger impossible except when he`s discussing Nietzsche, Sartre unreadable when he`s writing philosophy and entertaining only when filtering his ideas through another sensibility-Freud, Genet, Flaubert-or embodying them in novels and plays.
Thank heavens, then, for the tonic clarity and gallows humor of the Romanian exile E.M. Cioran, who has been described as a ”sort of final philosopher of the Western world” whose ”statements have the compression of poetry and the audacity of cosmic clowning.”
Cioran writes out of a kind of hilarious insomniac despair that takes for granted our own darkest fears and finds in them reasons not only to continue living but also to have fun doing so. According to this ”skeptic-on-duty in a decaying world,” as he titles himself, ”the fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live-moreover, the only one.” And ”since day after day I have lived in the company of Suicide, it would be unjust and ungrateful to denigrate it. What could be healthier, what could be more natural?” Besides, to end one`s life would deprive one of the pleasure of deriding it, he says elsewhere.
No one should infer from this an attitude of lofty superiority on Cioran`s part. He is so far beyond disillusion as to recognize and ridicule the egomania of the illusioned self he was in his youth, yet still finds the most convincing reasons for condemning humanity in the study of himself.
”The Self-that supreme farce,” he says in a typically terse observation; and in another: ”A glum sky-my mind masquerading as the firmament.” So we tend to credit him when he says that ”of all creatures, the least intolerable are those who hate human beings. Never run away from a misanthrope.” Thus the paradoxically bracing effect of another Cioran mot, in the chapter of aphorisms called ”The Lure of Disillusion”: ”I anticipated in my lifetime the disappearance of our species. But the gods have been against me.”
As for the gods or God, Cioran seems unable to believe, yet not for the reason that boggles most moderns, the question of evil: If there is a God, how could he permit the French Revolution, much less Buchenwald? Writing on the reactionary thinker Joseph de Maistre, he takes this in stride: ”Good and Evil principles coexist and mingle in God, as they coexist and mingle in the world. The notion of God`s culpability is not a gratuitous one. . . . Only such an idea confers some intelligiblity on the historical process, on all it contains that is monstrous, mad, and absurd. . . .”
History is futile by definition, Cioran says. Every ”impulse of renovation” or revolution, as it defines and confirms itself, ”loses energy, and this is also true of ideas. . . . Beyond their virtual status, thought and action degrade and annul themselves: one ends up as a system, the other as power: two forms of sterility and failure,” and thus ”we fulfill ourselves only on our own ruins.”
That is one of his reasons for admiring Samuel Beckett, one of the few fiction writers he exempts from somnolence (in the world of letters, he says, ”to be asleep is de rigueur”). Beckett, he says, lived ”not in time but parallel to it. . . . He is one of those human beings who make you realize that history is a dimension man could have done without.”
Cioran also characterizes himself in his praise for Jorge Luis Borges, whom he consoles for ”the misfortune of being recognized. He deserved better . . . to remain as ineffable and unpopular as nuance itself.” In Cioran, as in Borges, ”everything is transfigured by the spirit of play. . . . I have never been attracted to minds confined to a single form of culture: `Not to take root, not to belong to any community`; such has been and such is my motto.”
”Anathemas and Admirations” is a good introduction to Cioran because it is his most incidentally autobiographical book, a mixture of long and short essays on literary and philosophical figures, chapters of thematically arranged aphorisms and letters to friends and editors about other writers-including the scholar of religions Mircea Eliade, whose differences from himself he uses to carve his own thinking into sharper relief.
Among his many anathemas is the French language-in which, perversely, he has chosen to write, despite (or possibly because) he sees it disappearing from the world: ”Today, when this language is in full decline . . . it is I, a Balkan reject, who suffer at seeing it go under. Well then, I shall sink, inconsolable, with it!”
That last word in the book has the sound of valediction, though one hopes this is not indeed the 80-year-old Cioran`s last word.