“Of Hatred and Solitude in the Works of Mary Shelley and E. M. Cioran” (Ştefan Bolea)

Philobiblon. Transylvanian Journal of Multidisciplinary Research In Humanities, XXII, 2, pp. 105-116 (2017)

Abstract Despite the fact that Mary Shelley and E. M. Cioran have never been previously analyzed in the same context (they belong not only to different ages but also to divergent genres), we will find that they share at least two similar themes. The motif of solitude, common among Romantic poets (Coleridge, Byron, Poe), finds a deep expression in Shelley’s Frankenstein and in Cioran’s early oeuvre. A more thorough investigation of the British novelist and the Romanian-French self-described “anti-philosopher” discloses that hatred (a theme that is not frequently researched from a philosophical point of view) might be another of their obsessions. The concept of the nihilistic not-man becomes useful when we will follow the tripartite shape of hatred (of others, of myself and of God) not only in literature or philosophy but also in pop culture.
Keywords Romantic solitude, radical alterity, self-hatred, nihilism, life-in-death, not-man, the dissolution of the pattern of likeness.

Romanticism and Nihilism: Mary Shelley and E. M. Cioran

Cioran’s early work contains many post-Romantic features: the fierce (almost extreme) individualism (a trait shared with Kierkegaard and Stirner, among philosophers, but also present in the works of poets such as Jean Paul and Byron), the antihumanism and obvious misanthropy of his diatribes (in the 19th century tradition of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Mainländer), his focus on the “night soul”, on the dark side of being (a process similar to the Romantic discovery of the unconscious, anticipating the discoveries of psychoanalysis), his anti-intellectualism and criticism of the decadence of Western civilization (influenced by theoreticians such as Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Weininger, and Spengler), his reactionary radicalism and dismissal of the values of Enlightenment (we might remember here that Romanticism is considered a counter-Enlightenment by D. J. Moores). Moreover, his entire work can be described as a meditation on the “continuous ending” of European culture, of what Kierkegaard called in another context “agony” or “deathless death”. This theme, which became preeminent in the fin du siècle literature, connects Cioran with the Romantics through the necessary link of Symbolist theoreticians such as Charles Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

The feeling of ontic isolation (and the related themes of misanthropy and antihumanism) which connects Cioran to Mary Shelley and to the rest of the British Romantics such as Coleridge, Byron, P. B. Shelley, Keats or William Cowper), is one of Mary Shelley’s trademarks in both Frankenstein and The Last Man. One has the feeling that Cioran is “the last man,” when reading On the Heights of Despair or The Twilight of Thoughts. Cioran’s break from mankind, his hyperbolic separation from the “everyday” “commonsensical” reality reminds us of Mary Shelley’s unnamed monster, of Byron’s Cain and Manfred, of Lermontov’s demon or of Lautréamont’s anti-hero. His excesses make us feel that we are in the presence of a radical alterity of humanity, and that our normalcy is a symptom of mediocrity (as both Cioran and Shestov argue). Of course, Cioran’s modern nihilism from the works of the 1930s and 1940s is more multifaceted than the nascent nihilism of his Romantic predecessors (because it includes elements from German expressionism, Italian futurism and surrealism). However, the post-Romantic dimension of his work is stronger: individualism and isolation, antihumanism and hatred for mankind are in fact Romantic innovations (and also Cioran’s style from his Romanian books is reminiscent to German Romanticism). Moreover, the “classical” Romantic heroes (Manfred, Werther or Hyperion) situate themselves in a pre-Cioranian position when rethinking the relationship between the I and the others, the I and God, and also the division between I and I (a theme Jean Paul borrowed from Fichte). Cioran’s auctorial ego from The Heights of Despair breaks free from the Heideggerian In-der-Welt-Sein, becoming a shattered mirror of the self, reflecting only the not-man (a reference to Baudelaire’s “looking glass of the shrew” and to Maupassant’s “empty mirror”). Moreover, we can connect this auctorial ego with Mary Shelley’s Luciferian reflections of the unnamed monsters through the hermeneutic link of Nietzsche’s dissociated journal from Ecce homo. However, there are many other links, as we shall see: Goethe’s definition of madness as solitude, Schopenhauer’s conception of life as negativity, Poe’s conception of loneliness, the Freudian constellation of paternal complexes, and so on.

If it is obvious that Cioran’s (post-)Romanticism is a stronger feature than his attachment to avant-garde, we can also argue that Mary Shelley is a nihilist. Formed in the intellectual circle of British Romanticism (Byron, P. B. Shelley, and Keats), Mary Shelley’s heroes share this ambivalent position between ego, alterity, and divinity. Most of her characters are intrinsically divided (and their hatred of God and others is, as we shall see, a symptom of self-loathing). The monster from Frankenstein, like Milton’s Lucifer, fights against himself just as much as he combats God: one might claim that the rebellion against divinity is a revolt against the self, because human beings share – in Augustinian fashion – a divine core. M. Shelley’s monstrous not-man (a concept we shall further elaborate) breaks from the pattern of “likeness,” becoming, like Cioran’s narrator, a version of the radical alterity of mankind. It is also clear that her antihumanism is a consequence of her “war with transcendence”: that the death of God (a concept anticipated by Hegel and Jean Paul) leads to the “death of man”, to the demise of a certain type of human being (and the arrival of the “new gods”, of the notmen). The journey of her hero to the “North pole of being” (the geographic ontology of absolute negation) is also symptomatic to her nihilism understood as dissociation and breaking from the shackles of normalcy: first we abandon the others, then we abandon divinity, and in the end we understand that we are running away from ourselves… [PDF]