“Notes on nothing: an inquiry into nihilism in Cioran’s thought and works” (Rodrigo I. R. Sá Menezes)

Anale. Seria Drept, volumul XXVI (2017) la editura Mirton Timisoara, ISSN 1582-9359

Abstract: Cioran is often labeled as a “nihilist”, which is to a great extent the result of his equivocal ties with Friedrich Nietzsche, one of his main youth influences. However, nihilism does not constitute a key notion in Cioran’s writings, and neither does the Romanian-born author of French expression employs it as self-describing category. Instead, he accepts the category of the Skeptic as that which best suits his intellectual stance. We shall argue that, even if it is inevitable to speak of nihilism when it comes to Cioran’s thought and works, it is nevertheless an equivocal concept that must be relativized and held only as a propaedeutic hermeneutical operator that should later be abandoned, as it does not manage to encompass the depth and the complexity of his thought. Where readers and critics would see ” nihilist ” , Cioran says ” skeptic “. Instead of labeling him as a nihilist in the strict sense of the concept, we suggest replacing the concept of nihilism for that of meontology: a theory of nothingness, which does not amount to the same thing as nihilism. Finally, our contention is that Cioran’s philosophical and theological concerns for issues such nothingness and evil does not make him a nihilist as the Nietzschean tradition of philosophy would put it. He is rather a meontological metaphysician and also a heterodox mystic spirit, and yet a tragic character of a kind.
Keywords: Nothingness, Evil, Nihilism, Skepticism, Pessimism, Gnosticism, Atheism, Mysticism, Meontology, Voidness

“Shestov, or the purity of despair” (Czeslaw Milosz)

From Emperor of the Earth: modes of eccentric thinking, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, pp. 99-119

There was once a young woman by the name of Sorana Gurian. She emigrated to Paris in the 1950s from her native Rumania after adventures about which, she felt, the less said the better. In Paris her life of poverty as a refugee did not particularly disturb her. In fact of the group of students, young writers, and artists among whom she lived she was the first to make her way; a good publisher, Juillard, accepted her first and second novels. Then, all of a sudden (how could it have happened if not all of a sudden?), she discovered that she had breast cancer. An operation followed, then another. Although cases of recovery are rare, they do occur; after the second operation, her doctors were optimistic. Whether Sorana had complete confidence in them I do not know. In any case, one battle was won. Being a writer she had to write about what concerned her most, and she wrote a book about her illness—a battle report on her fight against despair. That book, Le Récit d’un combat, was published by Juillard in 1956. Her respite, however, lasted only a year or two.

I met Sorana shortly before her death; through mutual friends she had expressed a wish to meet me. When I visited her in her small student hotel on the Left Bank, she was spending most of the day in bed with a fever. We talked about many things, including writers. She showed me the books on her night table; they were books by Shestov in French translation. She spoke of them with that reticent ardor we reserve for what is most precious to us. “Read Shestov, Milosz, read Shestov.” The name of Sorana Gurian will not be preserved in the chronicles of humanity. If I tell about her, it is because I cannot imagine a more proper introduction to a few reflections on Shestov.

Lev Shestov (pen name of Lev Isaakovich Schwarzman) was born in Kiev in 1866. Thus by the turn of the century he was already a mature man, the author of a doctoral dissertation in law, which failed to bring him the degree because it was considered too influenced by revolutionary Marxism, and of a book of literary criticism (on Shakespeare and his critic Brandes). His book Dobro v uchenii grafa Tolstogo i Nitsshe— filosofia i proponed’ (The Good in the Teaching of Count Tolstoy and Nietzshe: Philosophy and Preaching) was published in 1900. In the same year he formed a lifelong friendship with Nikolai Berdyaev, one that was warm in spite of basic disagreements that often ended in their shouting angrily at one another. His friendship with Berdyaev and Sergei Bulgakov places Shestov in the ranks of those Russian thinkers who, about 1900, came to discover a metaphysical enigma behind the social problems which had preoccupied them in their early youth. Shestov’s philosophy took shape in several books of essays and notes written before 1917. His collected works (1911) can be found in the larger American libraries. The fate of his writings in Russia after the revolution, and whether their meaning has been lost for new generations, is hard to assess. In any case Shestov expressed himself most fully, it seems to me, in his books published abroad after he left Russia in 1919 and settled in Paris, where he lived till his death in 1938. These are Vlast’ klyuchei: Potestas Clavium (The Power of the Keys), 1923 and Na vesakh Iova (In Job’s Balances), 1929; those volumes which first appeared in translation, Kierkegaard et la philosophie existentielle, 1938 (Russian edition, 1939), and Athènes et Jérusalem: un essai de philosophie religieuse, 1938 (Russian edition, 1951); lastly those posthumously published in book form, Tol’ko veroi: Sola Fide (By Faith Alone), 1966, and Umozreniïe i otkroveniïe: religioznaya filosofia Vladimira Solovyova i drugiïe stat’i (Speculation and Revelation: The Religious Philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov and Other Essays), 1964.

Shestov has been translated into many languages. Yet in his lifetime he never attained the fame surrounding the name of his friend Berdyaev. He remained a writer for the few, and if by disciples we mean those who “sit at the feet of the master,” he had only one, the French poet Benjamine Fondane, a Rumanian Jew later killed by the Nazis. But Shestov was an active force in European letters, and his influence reached deeper than one might surmise from the number of copies of his works sold. Though the quarrel about existentialism that raged in Paris after 1945 seems to us today somewhat stale, it had serious consequences. In The Myth of Sisyphus—a youthful and not very good book, but most typical of that period—Albert Camus considers Kierkegaard, Shestov, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Husserl to be the philosophers most important to the new “man of the absurd.” For the moment it is enough to say that though Shestov has often been compared with Kierkegaard he discovered the Danish author only late in his life, and that his close personal friendship with Husserl consisted of philosophical opposition—which did not prevent him from calling Husserl his second master after Dostoevsky… [+]

“The category of the religious in Cioran’s discourse” (Rodrigo I. R. Sá Menezes)

Anale Seria Drept, Universitatea Tibiscus, Timișoara, Romania, n° XXV, 2016, p. 49-80.

COPERTA_MAbstract: We aim at demonstrating the hermeneutic plausibility of reading Cioran as a heterodox religious thinker, a hypothesis that sits comfortably well alongside the assumption of him being a secular spirit–one with a concern for religious matters and an appeal for some ever-problematic transcendence. As the author puts it himself, all he ever thought and wrote stems from one and only feeling of existence, a feeling we shall qualify as being of a religious nature. Thus, we aim at analyzing such religious feeling of existence, demonstrating its manifold expressions throughout the works of Cioran, both Romanian and French. In a second moment, we shall confront the underlying connection between the category of the religious and that of the mystic in Cioran’s works, so as to show that they actually coincide in a deep, essential level of understanding. We shall further develop, in subsequent essays, the thesis of Cioran as a sui generis gnostic type of thinker: a modern-day Gnostic without any pretension to salvation whatsoever. If Cioran’s viewpoint with regard to the divine realm of a good, alien God (Hans Jonas) draws him close to an agnostic stance, his recurring statements about the world as a demiurgic Creation “submerged in evil” (History and Utopia) could not be more unequivocally gnostic. Beyond all skepticism, even though it cannot be overlooked, Cioran is a radically dualistic, metaphysical and religious thinker concerned with the problems of evil and nothingness when it comes to reflecting upon human existence and condition.

Keywords: Religious, Mystic, God, Absolute, Evil, Demiurge, Gnosticism, Dualism, Atheism, Redemption

[Full text]

“The «clairvoyants des abîmes»: Cioran, Reader of F.M. Dostoievsky” (Sergio García Guillem)

Human and Social Studies (HSS) – The Journal of “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University from Iasi, vol. 2, Issue 3 (Oct 2013), pp. 124-139.

By Sergio García Guillem – Faculty of Philosophy and Sciences of Education, University of Valencia, Avenida Blanco Ibáñez 13, Nivel 4, Valencia, 46010, Spain

Abstract: The discovery of F.M. Dostoyevsky by young E. M. Cioran marks a turning point for a better understanding of his first Romanian work and his later production in French. His first work, Pe culmile disperării [On the Heights of Despair] (1934) has a tragic breath, typically dostoyevskyan, which reminds us of the tragical and sick conscience of the (anti)hero of his Notes from the Underground (1864).

Keywords: Conscience, Sickness, Despair, Existence, Lucidity, Literature, Philosophy.

“I’ll join with black despair against my soul/
And to myself become an enemy”
(W. Shakespeare, Richard III)

“Le poète, conservateur des infinis visages du vivant”
(René Char, Fureur et Mystère)

Encounters in the underground: Cioran & Dostoyevsky

“[…] Il me semble que tous les héros de Dostoïevski sont ainsi : il leur faut trouver un vin qui étourdisse et captive leur soif de vie intense, il leur faut dépasser les limites de l’homme, aller jusqu’aux confins, se brûler les ailes à un poison quelconque, pourvu qu’il soit plus fort que l’homme : ange ou démon, qu’importe ! Ils étouffent dans la carcasse que la nature leur a donnée, il leur faut trouver autre chose […]”

These words, fruit of the correspondence between the Dominican friar Marie-Dominique Molinié and his good friend, the French-Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, contain extremely interesting information for a better comprehension of Dostoyevsky’s literary work and, concretely, for a better intrusion into the tragic soul of his prominent figures. The metaphor of this framework that suffocates the nature of his heroes is reflected in much clearer and diverse forms in the figure of “man from the underground”, the tormented par excellence. It is thus important to investigate this strange creature endowed with a tragic humanity, so present throughout the pages of Notes from the Underground, out of the whole polyphonic amalgam – to use a bakhtinian term – that Dostoyevsky offers us in his novels; young Cioran might represent – as we will strive to prove – the haughtiest and closest alter ego of this character. This short work, divided in two parts, will reveal the strong literary and ideological evolution of young Dostoyevsky, escaped from the Siberian captivity up to becoming a mature Dostoyevsky worried by the macabre soul and the tragic conscience of his prominent figures. It is here that young Cioran, exasperated with the philosophical conjecture of his youth, and sheltering in a heart-breaking shout, meets the purificating reading of the Russian writer (“[…] I consider Dostoyevsky to be the major writer of all times, the deepest”). The reading, among others, as Cioran himself confesses, of The Demons, The Brothers Karamazov or The Idiot awakens a demonic lucidity in the young Romanian student. [Pdf]

Gombrowicz’s reply to Cioran’s ‘‘The Conveniences and Inconveniences of Exile’’

Giedroyc wanted me to reply to Cioran’s (a Rumanian writer) article, ‘‘The Conveniences and Inconveniences of Exile.’’ The answer contains my view of the role of literature in exile.

Cioran’s words reek of a basement coolness and the rot of the grave, but they are too petty. Who is he talking about? Who should one understand to be the ‘‘writer in exile’’? Adam Mickiewicz wrote books and so does Mr. X, quite correct and readable ones, both are ‘‘writers’’ and nota bene, writers in exile, but here all parallels end.

Rimbaud? Norwid? Kafka? Słowacki? (There are a variety of exiles.) I believe that none of them would have been too horrified at this category of hell. It is very painful not to have readers and very unpleasant not to be able to publish one’s works. It certainly is not sweet being unknown, highly unpleasant to see oneself deprived of the aid of that mechanism that pushes one to the top, that creates publicity and organizes fame, but art is loaded with elements of loneliness and self-sufficiency, it finds its satisfaction and sense of purpose in itself. The homeland? Why, every eminent person because of that very eminence was a foreigner even at home. Readers? Why, they never wrote ‘‘for’’ readers anyway, always ‘‘against’’ them. Honors, success, reknown, fame: why, they became famous exactly because they valued themselves more than their success.

And that which is a little Kafka, Conrad, or Mickiewicz in even the smaller caliber writer, that which is genuine talent and real superiority or real maturity, will in no measure fit into Cioran’s basement. I would also like to remind Cioran that not only émigré but all art remains in the most intimate contact with decay, it is born of decadence, it is a transmutation of illness into health. All art, generally speaking, borders on silliness, defeat, degradation. Is there an artist who is not, as Cioran says, ‘‘an ambitious being, aggressive in his defeat, embittered, a conniving conqueror’’? Has Cioran ever seen an artist or writer who was not, who did not have to be, a megalomaniac? And art, as Boy once correctly said, is a graveyard: for every thousand people who were incapable of ‘‘coming into existence’’ and who remained in a sphere of painful insufficiency, barely one or two is capable of really ‘‘coming into existence.’’ This dirt, therefore, this venom of unsatisfied ambitions, this tossing and turning in a vacuum, this catastrophe has very little to do with emigration and a lot to do with art. They make up an aspect of every literary café and truly it is a matter of indifference where in the world the writers who are not writers enough in order to really be writers, suffer.

And perhaps it is healthier that they were deprived of doles, applause, all those tiny caresses that the state and society lavished upon them in the good old days in the name of ‘‘supporting native creativity.’’ This family playing at greatness and distinction, the sympathetic noise created at one time by the condescendingly smiling press and the half-baked critics, deprived of a feeling for the scale of events, that process of artificially pumping candidates up into a ‘‘national writer’’ . . . didn’t all this reek of kitsch? And the result? Nations that at best were capable of producing a few authentic writers nurtured entire hosts of wonders in this incubator, and in this familial warmth, which was a mixture of spinsterish goodness and a cynical disregard for values, all hierarchy disintegrated. Is it surprising then that these hothouse creations, nurtured in the womb of the nation, wilt when out of the womb? Cioran writes about how a writer torn away from his people is lost. If that is the case, this writer never existed in the first place: he was a writer in embryo. Instead, it seems to me that theoretically speaking and bypassing material hardship, the immersing of oneself in the world, that is, emigration, should constitute an incredible stimulus for literature.

For lo and behold the country’s elite is kicked out over the border. It can think, feel, and write from the outside. It gains distance. It gains an incredible spiritual freedom. All bonds burst. One can be more of oneself. In the general din all the forms that have existed until now loosen up and one can move toward the future in a more ruthless way.

An exceptional opportunity! The moment everyone has dreamed of ! It would seem, therefore, that the stronger individuals, the richer individuals would roar like lions! Then why don’t they? Why has the voice of these people faded abroad?

They do not roar because, first of all, they are too free. Art demands style, order, discipline. Cioran correctly underscores the danger of too much isolation, of excessive freedom. Everything to which they were tied and everything that bound them homeland, ideology, politics, group, program, faith, milieu—everything vanished in the whirlpool of history and only a bubble filled with nothingness remained on the surface. Those thrown out of their little world found themselves facing a world, a boundless world and, consequently, one that was impossible to master. Only a universal culture can come to terms with the world, never parochial cultures, never those who live only on fragments of existence. Only he who knows how to reach deeper, beyond the homeland, only he for whom the homeland is but one of the revelations in an eternal and universal life, will not be incited to anarchy by the loss of his homeland. The loss of a homeland will not disturb the internal order of only those whose homeland is the world. Contemporary history has turned out to be too violent and borderless for literatures too national and specific.

And it is exactly this excess of freedom that inhibits the writer most. Threatened by the enormity of the world and the finality of its affairs, they grasp at the past convulsively; they cling desperately to themselves; they want to remain as they were; they fear even the slightest change in themselves, thinking that everything will then fall apart; and, finally, they cling convulsively to the only hope remaining: the hope of recovering the homeland. Recovering the homeland, however, cannot come to pass without waging a battle, and a battle requires strength and collective strength can be achieved only by giving up one’s I. In order to produce this strength, the writer must impose a blind faith, among other deficiencies, on himself and his compatriots and the luxury of objective and free thinking becomes a grievous sin. He does not know how to be a writer without a homeland or in order to regain his homeland, he has to stop being a writer, at least a serious writer.

Though perhaps there is yet another reason for this spiritual paralysis, at least where it is not a matter of intellectuals but artists. I have in mind the very concept of art and the artist, as it has come to be accepted in Western Europe. It does not seem to be that our modern beliefs concerning the essence of art, the role of the artist, the relationship of artist to society have tallied with reality. The artistic philosophy of the West derives from the elite in crystallized societies where nothing interferes with conventional language but there is nothing a man thrown outside the limits of convention can do with such a philosophy. The concept of art forged on that side of the curtain by the victorious bureaucracy of the proletariat is even more elitist and more naive. An artist in emigration, however, is forced to exist not only outside of his people, but also outside of the elite. He confronts the spiritually and intellectually inferior sphere far more directly. Nothing isolates him from this contact, he has personally to endure the pressure of a brutal and immature life. He is like a bankrupt count who sees that the manners of the salon are worthless if there is no salon. Sometimes this pushes people in the direction of ‘‘democratic’’ shallowness, into a kindly ordinariness or into a crude ‘‘realism’’ and sometimes it condemns them to isolation. We have to find a way to feel like aristocrats once again (in the deeper sense of the word).

Therefore, if there is talk about the disintegration and decadence of émigré literature, then this notion of the issue would be closest to me because here, at least, we liberate ourselves for a moment from the vicious circle of trivialities and touch the difficulties capable of destroying authentic writers. I do not deny at all that overcoming these problems requires a great determination and boldness of spirit. It is not easy to be an émigré writer, which means almost total isolation. Why should it be surprising, therefore, that overcome by our own weakness and the enormity of the tasks, we bury our heads in the sand and, organizing parodies of the past for ourselves, we flee the big world to live in our little one?

Yet sooner or later our thought must work its way out of the impasse. Our problems will find people to solve them. At some point, it is no longer a matter of creativity itself, but the recovery of the capacity to create. We have to produce that portion of freedom, boldness, ruthlessness, and even, I would say, irresponsibility, without which creation is impossible. We have to accustom ourselves to a new scale of existence. We will have to treat our most cherished feelings unceremoniously, with sangfroid in order to attain other values. The minute we begin to shape the world in the place where we happen to be and with the means at our disposal, the enormity of the task will shrink, the boundlessness will become delineated, and the turbulent waters of chaos will begin to recede.

GOMBROWICZ, Witold. Diary. Transl. by Lillian Vallee. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, pps. 48-52.

“The Philosophy of Insomnia” (Willis G. Regier)

The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle Review. April 10, 2011.

Hegel wrote in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right that the owl of Minerva flies only at night. It hoots at insomniacs. I know. I’m one.


Bruises, red eyes, and research remind me that insomnia breaks down body and soul. Noisy neighbors, crying kids, overwork, bad food, sickness, pain, allergies, and rude visitors drive sleep away. So do naked thoughts and the words they wear: insomnias of insult, dread, worry, remorse, faux pas, frustration, revenge, and raw anxiety. Philosophy, in its immense universals, omits nothing (not even nothing). Thus there have always been tired philosophers of insomnia.

Insomnia has intrigued thinkers since the ancients, an interest that continues today, especially in Europe. What light does philosophy’s exploration of the dark of night shine on insomnia, particularly for that quintessential insomniac, the scholar?

Philosophy is no friend of sleep. In his Laws (circa 350 BC), Plato platonized, “When a man is asleep, he is no better than if he were dead; and he who loves life and wisdom will take no more sleep than is necessary for health.” Clement of Alexandria echoed, “There is no use of a sleeping man, as there is not of a dead man. … But whoever of us is most solicitous for living the true life, and for entertaining noble sentiments, will keep awake for as long time as possible.”

“The need of sleep is not in the soul,” he wrote, “for it is ceaselessly active.” In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche preached that the high goal of good Europeans “is wakefulness itself.”

Aristotle said all animals sleep. In the 20th century, the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran added in On the Heights of Despair (first published in 1934): “Only humanity has insomnia.” Emmanuel Levinas, author of the erotic and metaphysical Totality and Infinity (1961), imagined philosophy, all of it, to be a call to “infinite responsibility, to an untiring wakefulness, to a total insomnia.” What scholar has not heard that call, sacrificing sleep, straining eyes, and risking health in pursuit of some bit of truth or transcendence?

The first thing you learn about insomnia is that it sees in the dark. The second is that it sees nothing. Nada, nichts, néant. TheFrench philosopher Maurice Blanchot said in The Writing of the Disaster (1980), “In the night, insomnia is discussion, not the work of arguments bumping against other arguments, but the extreme shuddering of no thoughts, percussive stillness.” [+]

“E.M Cioran: To Infinity And Beyond” (Stephen Mitchelmore)

Spike Magazine, November 1, 1997

Stephen Mitchelmore explains why the writing of E.M. Cioran refuses explanation

“Nothing is more irritating than those works which ‘co-ordinate’ the luxuriant products of a mind that has focused on just about everything except a system.”

What is there to know about Emile Cioran? He was born in Romania, in 1911, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest. In adolescence, he lost his childhood in the country and was moved to the city. He also lost his religion. For years he didn’t sleep – until he took up cycling. He passed sleepless nights wandering the dodgy streets of an obscure Romanian city. In 1937 he moved to Paris and wrote, producing what are generally classified as ‘aphorisms’, collected together under such titles as The Temptation To Exist, A Short History Of Decay and The Trouble With Being Born. He knew Samuel Beckett, who eventually lost sympathy with his pessimism. Late in life he gave up writing, not wanting to “slander the universe” anymore, and died a few years later after an encounter with an over-excited dog.
I hope none of this helps… [+]