“Better to never have been born!” This pessimistic declaration has been made at various points in the history of human thought, becoming a true philosophical system beginning with Arthur Schopenhauer in the nineteenth century. It was repeated by various philosophers in subsequent decades, though rarely with the tragic passion of Emil Cioran (1911-1995). A solitary philosopher, Cioran was born in Romania but spent most of his career in Paris, where he moved at the age of 26 and where he remained until his death.
Living like a secular hermit, he never worked. He was driven by the mission of imprecating against God for having brought human beings into an existence which is illusion and torment. To Cioran’s mind, this existence is meaningless (nihilism), without evident truths on which to rely (skepticism) and one in which evil prevails over good (pessimism). From start to finish, Cioran’s thought and being are pervaded by a marked element of mysticism and religion – from his first book, which he wrote as a very young man in Romania, until his last, published in France.
The present essay, the first of its kind in English, traces the cultural roots of this mystical-religious dimension and its characteristics in Cioran’s writings, several of which have not been translated into English. From this inquiry emerges the profile of a skeptical, nihilistic and pessimistic thinker whose works all amount to an act of accusation against the goodness of Creation: all the aspects of his existential experience and theoretical reflection come together to produce a true philosophical trial. Above all, Cioran’s thinking is steeped in the cultural milieu of interwar Romania, permeated by the anti-rationalist existentialism of Nae Ionescu, the fascist mysticism of Corneliu Zelea Codreanu and widespread feelings of nationalism and anti-Semitism. The second of these elements is central to Cioran’s examination of religion, evident in his fascination with the metaphysical dualism of gnostic sects, according to which this existence is the poisoned gift of a malicious god. Finally, a number of influences are at work in Cioran’s mysticism, which is treated in detail in the final chapter: the appeal of the Buddhist East, the drama of God’s silence, the impossibility of faith, the need for a godless and skeptical mysticism, and the desire to merge with the Nothingness that preceded the creation of the world. (from the back cover)
Mirko Integlia is an Italian philosopher who specializes in philosophical pessimism. He has previously published Filosofie e narrazioni dell’assurdo (“Philosophy and Narratives of the Absurd”, Mimesis Pub. – 2017) and Fede e sentimento tragico della vita (“Faith and the Tragic Sense of Life”, Vatican Press – 2018).
Preface by Antonio Di Gennaro
This book by Mirko Integlia provides an important viewpoint and makes an essential contribution to the analysis and reconstruction of Emil Cioran’s work within the history of contemporary Continental Philosophy. Integlia’s perspective is that of a Christian believer who confronts (and sometimes clashes with) Cioran, as he traces step by step the existential trajectory and tragic thinking of the French-Romanian philosopher, scrutinising closely Cioran’s stance on religion and the subject of God.
For this, after all, is a complex matter that remains wide open, given that Cioran is at once a man of religion and a non-believer, an atheist mystic who rails against the supreme Being. Far from praying to God, Cioran lashes out at him, blasphemes, curses Him, screaming of his own absurd pain, teetering on the brink and “On the Heights of Despair”. Yet it is precisely here, in the abyss of loneliness and cafard that there arises the (ideal) glimmer of an absolute Being, in the form of an ultimate (spurious) “interlocutor” through whom the anguish and the intolerable “pain of living”, the sheer weight of being in the world, might after all be borne
I don’t possess faith, certainly, but I do have a relationship with God, if you like. Yes, that’s true, but it’s a relationship devoid of faith. I wrote somewhere: when one is disgusted by men, by life, by everything, even if one has no faith, God is an interlocutor. In the depths of loneliness, with whom can one speak? It is only with God that you then wish to speak.
One has to have dialogue and, since people were ruled out, God appears automatically. It’s a sort of faith without faith. In spite of the torment, the solitude, the anguish, what matters is that religion has played a role in my life, even without faith.
So, the Dominican priest Marie-Dominique Molinié is perhaps right when he refers to Cioran as a back-to-front believer (“un croyant à l’envers”) – a neat and paradigmatic expression that can be applied and used as a guiding thread even to Integlia’s hermeneutic endeavour. One need take only a cursory glance at Tears and Saints, or read a few passages from the Cahiers, to realize just how alive, deeply felt and turbulent is Cioran’s relationship with God, and just how intense and passionate is the inner drama of this barely twenty-year-old young man, who yearns to go beyond his restless unhappy conscience by projecting himself onto God:
I am like the sea which parts its waters to make room for God. Divine imperialism is man’s reflux. Oppressed by the solitude of matter, God has shed oceans of tears. Hence the sea’s mysterious appeal, and our longing to drown in it, like a short cut to him through his tears. He who has not shed tears on every seashore has not known the troubling vicinity of God, that solitude which forces upon us an even greater one.
And in Cioran’s Cahiers:
It is not easy to write about God when one is neither a believer nor an atheist: probably our drama comes from the fact that we can no longer be either the one or the other. […]
In spite of all my sneering, I understand perfectly well that one day I just might dissolve myself in God, and this possibility that I grant myself makes me a little bit more indulgent towards my sarcasm. […]
The only thing about me that is religious is my disgust for the world. Yet even this disgust is impure. Hence my intermittent and inconclusive relations with the Absolute.
All throughout his life Cioran struggled with God, who thus became his prime “target” during his accursed nights of insomnia. This is why it is so important to pay the greatest attention to Cioran’s expressions, positions and psychological development, while taking constant account not only of the works he published during his lifetime but also of his interviews and correspondence. The aim of such work is to illuminate (however partially and tentatively) the background and motives for the perennial “religious crisis” and spiritual travail that pursued Cioran from his teenage years spent in Sibiu to the end of his life in Paris’s Latin Quarter.
Greater than the pleasure of invoking God is that of attacking Him. Mystics, like atheists, are close to me. I understand the enraged love of the former and the furious hatred of the latter, yet I feel more at ease in the company of the latter: is it perhaps not more flattering to struggle than to bend the knee? Besides, where’s the satisfaction in choosing God for one’s target, in taking aim at Him! It’s true that it’s a game and that God isn’t toppled by our bullets or our blows. But so what! When we can’t love Him, we must fight Him. We have to take our foul moods out on someone. Even if it’s Him. It is out of humanity that I hate him – in order to spare people, but above all myself. My aversion is not the product of malice: it’s a simple exercise, a form of gymnastics, or a ritual born of cafard. Fundamentally, I need my hate sessions that make Him the centre or the pretext. Everyone trains whichever way they can: for the sake of my own balance, I have to go on living at war with Him. This way, we are in agreement. It goes without saying that when necessary I switch my method: that’s when I commit the absurdity of praying…
Mirko Integlia’s exegesis, which is as rigorous as it is meticulous, performs the much needed task of situating the specificity and originality of Cioran’s thought against the background of twentieth century philosophy. Cioran’s investigation, into God, unencumbered by any theoretical or speculative framework, flips – as it meditates – between philosophy, theology and “athéologie”, leaving the reader continually wrong-footed and bewildered, yet delivers few certainties and many doubts. This is all part of Cioran’s sceptical and paradoxical method, consisting of provocations and mockery, designed to avoid any final verity, but rather to remain ever open to nothingness and freedom:
I just can’t reconcile myself either with myself, with others or with things. Or, indeed, with God. With God, not at all. Am I to take refuge, like a witless worshipper, in his stone-cold arms? Neither do I need a pallet fit for exhausted old women. I rest more easily on the thorns of this world and when I get irritated, I too become a thorn in the side of the Creator and his creations.
INTEGLIA, Mirko, Tormented by God: The Mystical Nihilism of Emil Cioran. Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2019.