“Conversations with Shestov” (Benjamin Fondane)

Full version of “Entretiens avec Leon Chestov” from Rencontres avec Leon Chestov
Edited and annotated by Nathalie Baranoff and Michel Carassou, Paris, Plasma, 1982

I first met Shestov in the spring of 1924 at Jules de Gaultier’s home. Two years earlier I published, in Romanian, six chronicles dealing with his latest work translated into Romanian – “Revelations of Death”. I had no idea whether he was dead or alive, whether he was from this century or the past century. I never imagined him in any context, except maybe in Russia. And now suddenly I had in front of me this tall lanky old man, in that old-fashioned drawing room at de Gaultier’s.

I was truly moved and expressed as much, I think.

I let de Gaultier and Shestov talk and all I remember is that de Gaultier had trouble understanding Shestov’s French pronunciation (which he later improved) and that Shestov had difficulty understanding de Gaultier’s metaphysics. I had no problem with either and so I translated for de Gaultier what Shestov was saying, and explained to Shestov what de Gaultier was trying to convey.

I think Shestov was impressed with my sharpness and also with that spark of enthusiasm and combative spirit that I brought to the discussion. We left together.

For he first time in my life I felt intimidated. His daughter Tatiana took down my address and it was decided that I will be invited at the first opportunity.

From 1924 to 1929 I could locate only one note from Shestov among my papers… [+]


“Conflictos y posibilidades de los escritores en el exilio. La discusión entre Émile Cioran y Witold Gombrowicz” (Nicolás Hochman)

Anagramas, volumen 10, nº 19, pp. 119-128 (ISSN 1692-2522), Julio-Diciembre de 2011. 158 p. Medellín, Colombia.

Resumen – El artículo analiza las respuestas que el escritor polaco Witold Gombrowicz (exiliado en Argentina entre 1939 y 1963), dio al filósofo rumano Émile Cioran, quien en 1953 publicó “Ventajas y desventajas del exilio”, un provocativo ensayo en el cual habla acerca de los escritores en el exilio. El texto motivó un interesante debate por parte del polaco, que aunque no llegó a prosperar, es muy simbólico de la situación de la época. Para estudiar esto nos valemos de las apreciaciones que Gombrowicz consigna en su Diario (publicado por la revista polaca Kultura), que con los años se convirtió en una fuente invalorable, no sólo para estudiar su vida y obra, sino también el clima de época y los análisis de exilio en general.

Palabras clave: Witold Gombrowicz, Émile Cioran, exilio, escritores exiliados, patria.

Abstract – This article analyzes the answers the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz (exiled in Argentina between 1939 and 1963) gave to the Romanian philosopher Emile Cioran who published “Advantages and Disadvantages of Exile” in 1953; an essay where he writes about writers in exile. The text promoted an interesting discussion by the Polish writer. Although the discussion was not successfully accepted, it was a very symbolic theme about the situation at that time. For this study, we look for support in Gombrowicz’s statements in his Diary (published by the Polich journal Kultura) which became an priceless source as time passed, not only for studying his life and work, but also the environment of that period and the analysis made to exile in general.

Key words: Witold Gombrowicz; Émile Cioran; exile; exiled writers; motherland.


“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… [+]

“Albert Caraco, o filósofo do caos” (Ricardo Ernesto Rose)

Publicado em Debates Culturais РLiberdade de Ideias e Opini̵es, 07/03/2017

Eu nasci para mim mesmo entre 1946 e 1948, foi então que abri meus olhos para o mundo, até este momento era cego.” (Albert Caraco, pensador e escritor)


As primeiras três décadas do século XX foram um período de grandes movimentos sociais, econômicos e culturais. Depois da guerra entre a Rússia e o Japão (1905), ocorreu uma série de eventos catastróficos que moldaram a história do século XX (e também do século XXI): a Primeira Grande Guerra (1914-1918), a Revolução Russa (1917), a quebra da bolsa de Nova York (1929); dando início a uma grave crise econômica que afetou o mundo por vários anos e contribuiu para a ascensão do nazismo (1933).

No campo da ciência, os avanços construíram a base da tecnologia eletrônica dos nossos tempos: a teoria Quântica, criada por Planck em 1900 e desenvolvida ao longo das primeiras décadas do século XX por outros cientistas; a teoria da Relatividade (1915) por Einstein e o Princípio da Indeterminação (1927) por Heisenberg.

Nas artes a criatividade também foi muito grande: Expressionismo, Fauvismo, Cubismo, Futurismo, Abstracionismo, Dadaísmo e Surrealismo, entre os principais movimentos. Compositores como Schoenberg e Stravinsky revolucionavam a música, enquanto que intelectuais como Husserl, Durkheim, Russel, Heidegger, Tönnies, Scheler, Wittgenstein, Weber, Simmel, Dewey, Pareto, Ortega y Gasset, Whitehead e Sartre, foram alguns dos pensadores que ditavam novos rumos na filosofia e sociologia.

Um mundo em ebulição. No meio de toda esta agitação cultural e social, ocorria a movimentação de milhões de pessoas das regiões rurais para as cidades. O velho ditado medieval alemão “Stadtluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag” (O ar da cidade torna livre depois de ano e dia) concretizava-se para aqueles que ainda viviam no campo (as primeiras grande migrações para as cidades ocorreram na segunda metade do século XIX) e queriam participar da vida agitada das cidades. Ao mesmo tempo, grandes contingentes humanos, sem oportunidades nas cidades afetadas pela crise econômica, emigravam do continente europeu para as Américas, principalmente os Estados Unidos.

Foi nesse ambiente que nasceu Albert Caraco. Filho de José Caraco e Elisa Schwarz, judeus sefarditas, Albert veio ao mundo em Istambul, em 8 de julho de 1919. A família Caraco viajou muito pelo Europa, passando por Viena, Praga e Berlim, para se estabelecer em Paris. Foi lá que Albert se graduou na École des Hautes Études Commerciales (Escola de Altos Estudos Comerciais) em 1939. Pressentindo o perigo do nazismo se alastrando na Europa, José Caraco toma a família e deixa Paris em direção à América do Sul, passando por Honduras, Brasil (Rio de Janeiro) e Argentina, estabelecendo-se no Uruguai. Lá a família se converte ao catolicismo e passa a morar em Montevidéu… [+]

“Cioran y Sissi” (Roland Jaccard)

NEXOS, Mexico, 1 Enero 1996

Es posible que usted haya visto a Cioran hurgando en los mostradores de crítica literaria de los vendedores de libros viejos de la rue de l’Odéon, en busca de algún libro de Robert de Traz u hojeando el Nietzsche de Guy de Pourtalès o quizás hasta preguntándole al librero por alguna biografía de Sissi… Sí, Sissi. No se asombre ni se frote las orejas. Oyó bien: Sissi figura dentro del Panteón de los ídolos de Cioran.

¿Cómo? ¿Sissi y Cioran? ¿El filósofo y la emperatriz? Catalina II de Rusia y Diderot, todavía pasa Pero Cioran y Sissi, eso sí cuesta trabajo creerlo, pensará usted. Y ya se imaginará a Cioran, llorando a lágrima viva al ver por enésima vez la serie de películas de Ernst Marischka y al admirar el parecido entre Sissi y Romy Schneider.

Yo mismo había dado argumentos a los detractores de la emperatriz, al sostener en un artículo que los poemas de Sissi -sí, cómo no, la emperatriz también fue poetisa- son bastante malos. Cioran protestó enérgicamente y me aseguró que me guardaba rencor por esa irreverente afirmación respecto a su reina. Pero cuando pudo leer esos poemas tuvo que confesar que yo no estaba totalmente equivocado. Para sellar el fin de aquella breve ruptura, me invitó a cenar en su buhardilla de la rue de I’Odéon.

Esa noche salí temprano de casa para poder pasear, pensar en la emperatriz y preparar mis armas antes de encontrarme con el filósofo. Me preguntaba qué razones habrían llevado a Cioran a idolatrar a Sissi. ¿Acaso sería porque Sissi admiraba a Heine y a Schopenhauer?

La aristocracia austriaca de esa época despreciaba soberanamente a los representantes del arte. Se decía que un austriaco, a pesar de que fuera simultáneamente Shakespeare, Galileo, Nelson y Rafael, no podía ser admitido en la alta sociedad vienesa si no era de rancio abolengo. A esto hay que agregar que Viena era la ciudad del mundo donde menos se leía y más se bailaba. ¡Pues sí! Sissi se escabulló de esa regla de la frivolidad. En las fiestas y en los bailes de la corte la emperatriz prefería la filosofía de Schopenhauer y la poesía de Heine. Hasta bautizó a su caballo favorito con el nombre de Nihilista. Esa provocación no podía desagradarle a Cioran. Sissi, discípula de Schopenhauer e hija espiritual de Heine, ¿quién lo hubiera creído?

Pero prepárense para otra sorpresa: ¿recuerdan a Titania, hada que aparece en El sueño de una noche de verano? Esa graciosa obra le encantaba a Sissi, quien se comparaba con Titania; bajo los efectos de un filtro mágico, Titania se enamoraba de Bottom, un hombre rústico transformado en asno. Los pretendientes de la emperatriz. entre los que se encontraba Francisco‑José, quedaron inmortalizados en uno de sus poemas sobre la soledad de Titania: “Yo sola [escribía la emperatriz]. como una maldita, / Yo, reina de las hadas, / Sólo yo no encuentro jamás / al alma hermana que busco. // En vano de mi trono de lis / muchas veces he bajado; / Jamás encontré placer / al lado de un hijo de la tierra. // A menudo, en las suntuosas noches de verano, / bajo el voluptuoso claro de luna, / He pensado: ”He aquí el que me hace falta!’. / Y ya me regocijaba / Pero siempre, en el alba, / Cálida y apretada en mi corazón, / Descubría con horror / en mis brazos la cabeza de un asno”… [+]

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.” [+]