Does philosophy fail in the face of death? Karl White turns to the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran’s life-long meditation on birth, existence and annihilation, asking whether philosophy can save us from the despair of our final hour or whether its limits lie at the very edge of our own mortality.
From its inception the philosophical enterprise has centred on death. Philosophy teaches us how to die, declared Socrates. According to him, we are pretending to be wise when we fear death, as we know nothing about it, and it could, contrary to all our instincts, be a blessing. Philosophy also has endeavoured to palliate our fears by reiterating endlessly a reminder of our mortality: it attempts to elevate us above the quotidian to make our death seem nothing exceptional; it urges on us a kind of modesty, where we must remember that we are pledged to death, a constant memento mori (which translates literally as ‘Remember to die’). Does it succeed in any of these goals? According to the Romanian thinker E.M. Cioran the answer is a resounding and deathly no, for according to him “nature has been generous to none but those she has dispensed from thinking about death”. Faced with true catastrophe, philosophy can ultimately be only a meditation on its own failure and impotence when confronted by the reality of our extinction.
Cioran is the anti-philosopher of philosophy. He decries and scorns the attempts of professional philosophers to circumscribe and contain the rawness of experience and the aporias of life with categories, definitions and moral imperatives. Cioran instead records with inimitable style, irony and black humour the twists and turns of his sensations, rages and disappointments and most powerfully the impotence of both reason and philosophy to cope with and contain death’s invisible and limitless force. While man is in his eyes a puppet of fate and forces beyond his control, philosophy, as a discipline that endeavours to contain existence through the judicious use of reason, is but a mockery and comic example of human hubris. Death and silence will have the last words… [+]
Towards the end of the twentieth century, a celebrated Romanian-French philosopher and aphorist was invited to speak in Zurich. He was introduced with rhetorical pomp and flattering comparisons to the likes of Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. The speaker smiled, and immediately confounded his German interpreter by beginning his presentation with the words: ‘Mais je ne suis qu’un déconneur’ / ‘But I’m just a joker’.
A few of his critics might agree, but they would be wrong. For Emil Mihai Cioran is very much worthy of inclusion in the line of the great French and European moral philosophers and writers of maxims stretching back to Montaigne, Chamfort, Pascal and La Rochefoucauld.
Cioran was born in Rasinari, Romania, in April 1911. His father was a Greek Orthodox priest. Both facts were to be key in his later work. The writer’s Romanian origins are often taken as the source of a brooding, Romantic, fatalistic temperament while his father’s ecclesiastical calling finds echoes in his son’s unswerving preoccupation with themes of religion, sainthood and the dangers and joys of atheism… [+]
In late January, two weeks after the terrorist attacks, I took a trip to Paris with the vague intention of researching an essay on the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran, who lived in the city from 1937 until his death in 1995. What this research would consist of was not really clear. Cioran’s life in Paris was notable for the fact that, other than write books, he had done absolutely nothing of interest there. He had simply lived out year after year in the flat on rue de l’Odéon that he shared with his long-term partner, Simone Boué, where he finally became senile, fell ill, and died, inadvertently backing out of the suicide pact that he and Boué had made together. It seemed likely that my ‘research’ would be confined to loitering around Cioran’s grave at the Montparnasse cemetery, and staring up at his inaccessible apartment from the street below. Nonetheless, I had persuaded myself that spending time in Paris was the only way the essay would ever get off the ground.
On the morning of my trip, I woke at 4 a.m. and made it to the airport in good time to catch my 6.25 flight. When I showed my boarding pass at the gate, however, I was informed that I’d been queuing for the wrong 6.25 flight to Paris. This was Air France and I was Ryanair. I ran back the way I’d come, and for reasons unclear was instructed to pass through security all over again. Hurrying towards the Ryanair gate, I told myself that somehow it would all work out. I had never missed a plane, regardless of hangovers, stoned muddles and misfiring alarm clocks: it followed that I would not miss this one. When I reached the gate, sweating extravagantly, the airport worker in his high-vis jacket told me that the plane had been delayed – that was it out there on the taxiway – but the doors were all closed up and there was no way of getting on. I would have to book another flight and check in all over again. And no, there wouldn’t be any refund from Ryanair.
I ended up flying with Aer Lingus a couple of hours later, at a cost I’d rather not think about. The one consolation in all this was that Aer Lingus actually flew me to Paris, rather than to what Ryanair calls ‘Paris’, in reality a remote zone called Beauvais, which on previous visits seemed to me even further from Paris than Dublin itself. Looking out the window of the train that brought me from Charles de Gaulle to the Gare du Nord, I ruminated on how I had always prided myself on never having missed a plane, and now I had missed one. It seemed to me that, as I grew older, the stock of personal traits I could pride myself on was steadily diminishing – I had managed to slip up in almost every category where that had once been the case. Perhaps I had no option but to start taking pride in things I had done – accomplishments – rather than in things I had refrained from doing, such as missing a plane.
At Gare du Nord I boarded the Métro. As the crowded train was pulling out of the station, I looked out the window and saw four soldiers with machine-guns descending the stairs to the platform. The sight triggered a momentary panic: had the soldiers arrived because they knew something? Were they moments too late to board the train and shoot dead the jihadists that were now about to blow us up or flood the carriage with poisonous gas? The panic receded as I reminded myself that the chances of actually being caught up in a terrorist attack, in Paris or anywhere else, were slim. On the other hand, the very fact that I was thinking like this – having to remind myself that I was probably safe – demonstrated the efficacy of terrorism: I felt terrorized, therefore terrorism had achieved its goal. I recalled the five years I had spent living in London. Not once did I manage to take the Tube in that city without imagining, as we hurtled through narrow tunnels deep underground, the horror that would ensue if a bomb went off or a gas attack was perpetrated – the airless panic as bodies pressed against one another, everyone desperate to get out but knowing there was nowhere to go. I used to wonder how much heat my nervous system could take before the agony caused me to pass out: I told myself that it wouldn’t be so bad, that the body would automatically shut itself down to avoid intolerable pain, but I never really believed it.
As the train approached my stop, I noticed the unusual typography of the book being read by the young black guy sitting next to me. It looked very much like a book of aphorisms, and when I leaned over to check the title I was delighted to see that it was Cioran’s De l’inconvénient d’être né. Zoé, the friend in whose flat I would be staying, had told me that Cioran was not really taken seriously in France: his extreme pessimism and insistence on the wretchedness of life, humanity and everything else were considered a bit of a posture. ‘If that was really how he saw things, why didn’t he just kill himself?’ she asked in paraphrasis of the widespread French attitude.
The guy with the Cioran book was reading it bareback, as I thought of it, meaning without a pen in his hand. My own copy of The Trouble with Being Born back in Dublin was very heavily underlined, perhaps the most heavily underlined of all my books. I had read it numerous times, on each occasion happening to use a different-coloured pen to highlight the passages I considered particularly remarkable. The problem was, the whole book seemed particularly remarkable: the prose (in Richard Howard’s wonderful translation) was so consistently striking, its mode of attack so viscerally elegant, that, after the third or fourth reading, almost the entirety of the book had been underlined. These rampant, multi-coloured underlinings (which gave the impression of graffitied subway walls, like those we were now hurtling past), negated the very purpose of underlining in the first place. When a given text is uniformly excellent, it is futile to mark out the strong passages because one will end up, as I had done, underlining the entire thing… [+]
Originally published in the American Book Review, vol. 1, no. 5, December/January 1978
In my bed of pain, with a crown of ice cubes araund my foot, I was proof that Paris is the best skateboarding town in the world. The square at St. Sulpice had run from under me like Los Angeles had from under Fred Astaire, to show me, possibly, that I wasn’t as young as my son. But the pain in my foot wasn’t as bad as the ache in my heart because now I couldn’t see the hero of my adolescence with whom, by clever and devious means, I had obtained an interview. I looked over the radiator at the roofs of Montparnasse eight floors down, and called Emil Cioran to tell him that I couldn’t make it that evening, that I was a cripple.
It is not pity, it is envy the tragic hero inspires in us, that lucky devil whose sufferings we devour as if we were entitied to them and he had cheated us of them. Why not try to take them back from him? In any case, they were meant for us … To be alI the more certain of that, we declare them our own, aggrandize them and give them excessive proportions; grappIe or groan before us as he will, he cannot move us, for we are not his spectators but his rivals, his competitors in the theatre, capable of supporting his miseries better than he is … (The Temptation to Exist 194)
Ever since I remember (and my memory only goes as far as my literate beginnings) I experienced that frisson of awe and envy at mention of Cioran’s name. Born in my hometown of Sibiu in Transylvania, he was a legend before I read him. Forbidden by the Communists, his books bumed with a flame that went way beyond their content, In the Iycee (the same one he had attended) I would positively dissolve at the thought that one day I might be good enough to meet him. The dazzling fantasy of being in Paris talking to Emil Cioran exhausted me. Here I was, at the core of my fantasy, unable to shake his hand. I was a tragic hero, not because of my wounded foot which they might or might not saw off, but because I couldn ‘t see him… [+]
Is it the knowledge of good and evil or the expulsion from the garden that constitutes man’s original sin? Whatever the case, it is at least plausible that “we are still not thinking”. Modernity, then, is still an “unfinished project” inasmuch as we have yet to think. And yet the original moment of “disenchantment” that dispelled the old gods continues to go under the name of an “idolatrous” science. We fail to think and yet it is because we are so successful at being dialectical that we have returned to the need for the old mythologies of earth, spirit, and the Absolute. In other words, true to form, it is our failure to be dialectical (we have not yet, it seems, reached the end of history) that indicates our great success at being dialectical.
This is why, because our philosophy has called us from slumber, insomnia and boredom are the…
“Gnostic thinking takes us to a privileged ontological realm: the state of perfection that precedes actualization. That which is yet to be born — be it the world, a person, a piece of furniture or a piece of writing like this one — may be nothing, but at this stage it is at its utmost. Its nothingness is fuller and richer than any ordinary existence. To fall into existence is to enter time, and with time comes decay, aging and death. Modern proponents of this idea are hard to come by, but the Romanian-born French philosopher E.M. Cioran is certainly one. For Cioran, who died in 1995, there was something incomparably worse than death — ‘the catastrophe of birth,’ and the ‘fall in time’ that comes with it. In his book The Trouble With Being Born, Cioran maps out the vast unfolding of nothingness that preceded coming into existence.” (Costica Bradatan)
Have you heard the story of the architect from Shiraz who designed the world’s most beautiful mosque? No one had ever conjured up such a design. It was breathtakingly daring yet well-proportioned, divinely sophisticated, yet radiating a distinctly human warmth. Those who saw the plans were awe-struck.
Famous builders begged the architect to allow them to erect the mosque; wealthy people came from afar to buy the plans; thieves devised schemes to steal them; powerful rulers considered taking them by force. Yet the architect locked himself in his study, and after staring at the plans for three days and three nights, burned them all.
The architect couldn’t stand the thought that the realized building would have been subject to the forces of degradation and decay, eventual collapse or destruction by barbarian hordes. During those days and nights in his study he saw his creation profaned and reduced to dust, and was terribly unsettled by the sight. Better that it remain perfect. Better that it was never built.
The story is a fable, but its main idea — that a thing’s ideal state is before it comes into existence, that it is better to not be born — is equal parts terrifying and uncanny, especially today, when progress and productivity are practically worshiped. And it evokes a philosophical insight with ancient roots that is still worth investigating.
“The world,” we read in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, “came about through a mistake.” The demiurge who made it “wanted to create it imperishable and immortal,” but eventually he “fell short of attaining his desire, for the world never was imperishable, nor, for that matter, was he who made the world.” The Gnostics believed nonexistence to be a mark of perfection, and coming into being a form of degradation.
Basilides, one of the most intriguing figures of early Gnosticism, believed that the highest attribute of divinity is its inexistence. By his own account, Basilides was a theologian of the “nonexistent God”; he referred to God as “he who is not,” as opposed to the maker of the world, trapped in existence and time.
Gnostic thinking takes us to a privileged ontological realm: the state of perfection that precedes actualization. That which is yet to be born — be it the world, a person, a piece of furniture or a piece of writing like this one — may be nothing, but at this stage it is at its utmost. Its nothingness is fuller and richer than any ordinary existence. To fall into existence is to enter time, and with time comes decay, aging and death.
Modern proponents of this idea are hard to come by, but the Romanian-born French philosopher E.M. Cioran is certainly one. For Cioran, who died in 1995, there was something incomparably worse than death — “the catastrophe of birth,” and the “fall in time” that comes with it. In his book “The Trouble With Being Born,” Cioran maps out the vast unfolding of nothingness that preceded coming into existence.
“I am lured only by what precedes me,” he writes, by “the numberless moments when I was not: the non-born.” From that perspective, he looks at the world with new eyes, and gains a deeper understanding of himself: “I have never taken myself for a being. A noncitizen, a marginal type, a nothing who exists only by the excess, by the superabundance of his nothingness.”
Cioran was a man of unusual tastes. He took a liking to the Thracians because they “wept over the newborn,” and to the Gnostic sect of Bogomils, who, “in order to justify God, held Satan responsible for the infamy of Creation.”
All of this raises an obvious question: Why do anything? Why multiply the cosmic failure, the “infamy of creation”?
Idleness, as we know, has a bad rap in Western culture, but it can be a philosophical experience in its own right. Bertrand Russell wrote a long essay in praise of it, and Oscar Wilde thought that “to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world” as well as the most intellectual. The great, consummate idlers of literature (Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov or Melville’s Bartleby) are figures of metaphysical quest: They exemplify ways of being human with unusual complexity.
Idleness, then, reveals an experience of nothingness. While nothingness tends to occupy a central position in Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Taoism, we in the West typically shun it; after all, one of the most characteristic branches of Western philosophy is ontology, the study of that which exists.
Yet, even if we do not choose to embrace nothingness, nothingness itself may choose to embrace us. It may not be that we don’t have anything to do, or that we’re bored, or that we would rather do it later, but just that we don’t see the point of it all. In our idleness we intuit a cosmic meaninglessness, which comes along with the realization that, with every action, we get only more entangled in the universal farce.
Perhaps the most intriguing form of idleness is one nearly all of us are intimately familiar with: procrastination. Idleness is difficult to find in a pure state. Indeed, in a certain sense, it eludes us because, at its most radical, idleness tends to devour its devotees (again, Oblomov and Bartleby). But procrastination is a different business altogether: It is not only more available, but also more dynamic, just as the procrastinator is a more dramatic figure than the idler, who is as ascetic and immobile as a pillar saint.
The drama of procrastination comes from its split nature. Just like the architect from Shiraz, the procrastinator is smitten by the perfect picture of that which is yet to be born; he falls under the spell of all that purity and splendor. What he is beholding is something whole, uncorrupted by time, untainted by the workings of a messed-up world. At the same time, though, the procrastinator is fully aware that all that has to go. No sooner does he get a glimpse of the perfection that precedes actualization than he is doomed to become part of the actualization process himself, to be the one who defaces the ideal and brings into the world a precarious copy, unlike the architect who saves it by burning the plans.
The procrastinator contemplates his deed and realizes all its future imperfection, but — fallen creature, “man of the world,” part of the “infamy of Creation” that he is — he must do it. The procrastinator is both contemplator and man of action, which is the worst thing to be, and which is tearing him apart.
What procrastination betrays is above all an anxiety of creation: It pains us unbearably to realize that, for all our good intentions, we are agents of degradation, that instead of creating something that stays whole and incorruptible, we by our very doing make it “perishable and mortal,” in the words of the Gnostic author of the Gospel of Philip. Procrastination and mourning are tied tightly together: for to procrastinate is to mourn the precariousness of your creation even before you bring it into the world.
We should perhaps spend more time dwelling on the rich virtuality that precedes the fall into existence. That is, after all, what true contemplation must be about: a commerce with the irreality of things, a learned habit to see them from the privileged perspective of their pre- and nonexistence. Rather than get caught up in the misleading appearance of the material world, we transport ourselves back to a moment when the world, with all its holes and imperfections, hasn’t happened yet.
If you would like to know what philosophizing was like in the ’50s, particularly in Paris, you might well try E. M. Cioran’s “The Temptation to Exist,” but if you already know those times, these essays may produce groans of, “Aw, c’mon, not that again.” Yet, “The Temptation to Exist” is an “underground classic.” It first appeared in France in 1956, was subsequently translated by Richard Howard and published in the United States in 1968, with an introduction by Susan Sontag. This re-publication, which will give Cioran new readers, testifies to its staying power, though despite its stature and the admonition of both Cioran and Sontag against historicising (which sucked the marrow out of philosophy’s abstractionist bones), the book has aged and entered history.
Little known in this country, Cioran may be the most distinguished contemporary in a line descending from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, whom he resembles in his avoidance of traditional modes of philosophical discourse. He employs instead the personal essay, developing it lyrically, surprisingly, from paradox to aphorism: “Masters in the art of thinking against oneself, Nietzsche, Baudelaire and Dostoevsky have taught us to side with our dangers, to broaden the sphere of our disease, to acquire existence by division from our being.” The phrase, “thinking against oneself,” provides the title of the essays and suggests the explosively paradoxical nature of most of them.
But there are problems inherent in the style, for there is a danger that a manner so self-aware, commanding a matter so nebulous, will drift over the boundary between meaning and posture and put us in view of a literary Muscle Beach. Moreover, his wearing the mantle of the “tired European intellectual” may bore and his concern with “being and nothingness” appear a form of intellectual self-abuse. There are dangers in re-publication, 30 years being, perhaps, exactly the wrong delay.
Most of these essays operate within a central paradox, for while Cioran seeks the void where existence can be separated from being and thus asserted, he does not give up time and society. It is complexity forced on him by history, by what is for him Europe’s irreversible decline. Together, Europe and its decline give him responsibility for his own and society’s health and free him from it, place him both inside and outside of engagement and history. He holds to the aristocratic and romantic view of the healthy life by opposing the intellect (“Too much lucidity results in a loss of equilibrium”) and the free mind (“ultimately anti-social, detrimental to the health of the community”). Yet he attacks action (“Led on by the whirlwind of acts , I am nothing but an acolyte of time”) and seeks to free the intellect (“The only free mind is the one that, pure of all intimacy with beings or objects, plies its own vacuity”). At the risk of “a certain coquetry of the void,” as Sontag puts it (what for another might seem a pleasure in carrion, a lack of fresh air, too many Gauloises), the mind becomes its own subject, a voyeur of the self.
Son of an Orthodox priest, Cioran emigrated in 1937 from Romania, where he had been a student of philosophy, to France, where he has since lived and written. He has, he says, “no nationality–the best possible status for an intellectual.” Or, rather, he has taken on a more abstract nationality, for he is self-consciously and nostalgically a European with a sense of cultural fatigue and superiority looking back at national destinies which have run their course: “If, in the past, (national) died for the absurdity of glory, they abandon themselves now to a frenzy of small claims. ‘Happiness’ tempts them; it is their last prejudice, from which Marxism, that sin of optimism, derives its energy.” Or, “When a nation begins to show its age, it orients itself toward the condition of the masses.” He rejects this “coward’s pact,” which has replaced the ruthless energies that built past glories and holds to an aristocratic and organicist view of nations.
He brings to mind another who moved west and wrote in a second language, an aristocrat, but Joseph Conrad wanted “History not Theory.” For him, organicism and ideas of national destiny were a blind for Russian absolutism and mysticism, belief without an idea. One of his Russian characters calls the pragmatic and reasoned Western solutions to government “a pact with the Devil.” But Conrad admired the rational, whereas Cioran sees the Age of Enlightenment as the enemy.