“Thinking Against Oneself: Reflections on Cioran” (Susan Sontag)

Susan Sontag

“What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking fustification always on the same plane?”

SAMUEL BECKETT

“Every now and then it is possible to have absolutely nothing; the possibility of nothing.”

JOHN CAGE

Ours is a time in which every intellectual or artistic or moral event is absorbed by a predatory embrace of consciousness: historicizing. Any statement or act can be assessed as a necessarily transient “development” or, on a lower level, belittled as mere “fashion.” The human mind possesses now, almost as second nature, a perspective on its own achievements that fatally undermines their value and their claim to truth. For over a century, this historicizing perspective has occupied the very heart of our ability to understand anything at all. Perhaps once a marginal tic of consciousness, it’s now a gigantic, uncontrollable gesture—the gesture whereby man indefatigably patronizes himself.

We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum. Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future. But even the most relevant events carry within them the form of their obsolescence. Thus, a single work is eventually a contribution to a body of work; the details of a life form part of a life history; an individual life history appears unintelligible apart from social, economic, and cultural history; and the life of a society is the sum of “preceding conditions.” Meaning drowns in a stream of becoming: the senseless and overdocumented rhythm of advent and super-session. The becoming of man is the history of the exhaustion of his possibilities.

Yet there is no outflanking the demon of historical consciousness by turning the corrosive historicizing eye on it. Unfortunately, that succession of exhausted possibilities (unmasked and discredited by thought and history itself) in which man now situates himself appears to be more than simply a mental “attitude”—which could be annulled by re-focusing the mind. The best of the intellectual and creative speculation carried on in the West over the past hundred and fifty years seems incontestably the most energetic, dense, subtle, sheerly interesting, and true in the entire lifetime of man. And yet the equally incontestable result of all this genius is our sense of standing in the ruins of thought and on the verge of the ruins of history and of man himself. (Cogito ergo boom.) More and more, the shrewdest thinkers and artists are precocious archaeologists of these ruins-in-the-making, indignant or stoical diagnosticians of defeat, enigmatic choreographers of the complex spiritual movements useful for individual survival in an era of permanent apocalypse. The time of new collective visions may well be over: by now both the brightest and the gloomiest, the most foolish and the wisest, have been set down. But the need for individual spiritual counsel has never seemed more acute. Sauve qui peut.

The rise of historical consciousness is, of course, linked with the collapse, sometime in the early nineteenth century, of the venerable enterprise of philosophical system-building. Since the Greeks, philosophy (whether fused with religion or conceived as an alternative, secular wisdom) had been for the most part a collective or supra-personal vision. Claiming to give an account of “what is” in its various epistemological and ontological layers, philosophy secondarily insinuated an implicitly futuristic standard of how things “ought to be”—under the aegis of notions like order, harmony, clarity, intelligibility, and consistency. But the survival of these collective impersonal visions depends on philosophical statements being couched in such a way as to admit of multiple interpretations and applications, so that their bluff can’t be called by unforeseen events. Renouncing the advantages of myth, which had developed a highly sophisticated narrative mode of accounting for change and for conceptual paradox, philosophy proliferated a new rhetorical mode: abstraction. Upon this abstract, atemporal discourse—with its claim to be able to describe the non-concrete “universals” or stable forms that underpin the mutable world—the authority of philosophy has always rested. More generally, the very possibility of the objective, formalized visions of Being and of human knowledge proposed by traditional philosophy depends on a particular relation between permanent structures and change in human experience, in which “nature” is the dominant theme and change is recessive. But this relation was upset—permanently?—around the time climaxed by the French Revolution, when “history” finally pulled up alongside “nature” and then took the lead. At the point that history usurped nature as the decisive framework for human experience, man began to think historically about his experience, and the traditional ahistorical categories of philosophy became hollowed out. The only thinker to meet this awesome challenge head-on was Hegel, who thought he could salvage the philosophical enterprise from this radical reorientation of human consciousness by presenting philosophy as, in fact, no more and no less than the history of philosophy. Still, Hegel could not help presenting his own system as true—that is, as beyond history—because of its in-corporation of the historical perspective. So far as Hegel’s system was true then, it ended philosophy. Only the last philosophical system was philosophy, truly conceived. So “the eternal” is reestablished once more, after all; and history comes (or will come) to an end. But history did not stop. Mere time proved Hegelianism bankrupt as a system, though not as a method. (As a method, proliferating into all the sciences of man, it confirmed and gave the largest single intellectual impetus to the consolidation of historical consciousness.)

After Hegel’s effort, this quest for the eternal—once so glamorous and inevitable a gesture of consciousness—now stood exposed, as the root of philosophical thinking, in all its pathos and childishness. Philosophy dwindled into an outmoded fantasy of the mind, part of the provincialism of the spirit, the childhood of man. However firmly philosophical statements might cohere into an argument, there seemed no way of dispelling the radical question that had arisen as to the “value” of the terms composing the statements, no way of restoring a vast loss of confidence in the verbal currency in which philosophical arguments had been transacted. Confounded by the new surge of an increasingly secularized, drastically more competent and efficient human will bent on controlling, manipulating, and modifying “nature,” its ventures into concrete ethical and political prescription badly lagging behind the accelerating historical change of the human land-scape (among which changes must be counted the sheer accumulation of concrete empirical knowledge stored in printed hooks and documents), the leading words of philosophy came to seem excessively overdetermined. Or, what amounts to the same thing, they seem undernourished, emptied of meaning. Subjected to the attritions of change on this unprecedented scale, philosophy’s traditionally “abstract leisurely procedures no longer appeared to address themselves to anything; they weren’t substantiated any more by the sense that intelligent people had of their experience. Neither as a description of Being (reality, the world, the cosmos) nor, in the alternative conception (in which Being, reality, the world, the cosmos are taken as what lies “outside” the mind) that marks the first great retrenchment of the philosophical enterprise, as a description of mind only, did philosophy inspire much trust in its capacity to fulfill its traditional aspiration: that of providing the formal models for understanding anything. At the least, some kind of further retrenchment or relocation of discourse was felt to be necessary.

One response to the collapse of philosophical system building in the nineteenth century was the rise of ideologies—aggressively anti-philosophical systems of thought, taking the form of various “positive” or descriptive sciences of man. Comte, Marx, Freud, and the pioneer figures of anthropology, sociology, and linguistics immediately come to mind.

Another response to the debacle was a new kind of philosophizing: personal (even autobiographical), aphoristic, lyrical, anti-systematic. Its foremost exemplars: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Cioran is the most distinguished figure in this tradition writing today.

The starting point for this modern post-philosophic tradition of philosophizing is the awareness that the traditional forms of philosophical discourse have been broken. The leading possibilities that remain are mutilated, incomplete discourse (the aphorism, the note or jotting) or discourse that has risked metamorphosis into other forms (the parable, the poem, the philosophical tale, the critical exegesis).

Cioran has apparently chosen the essay form. Between 1949 and 1964, five collections have appeared: Précis de Decomposition (1949), Syllogismes de l’Amertume (1952), La Tentation d’Éxister (1956), Histoire et Utopie (1960), and La Chute dans le Temps (1964). But these are curious essays by ordinary standards—meditative, disjunctive in argument, essentially aphoristic in style. One recognizes, in this Romanian-born writer who studied philosophy at the University of Bucharest and who has lived in Paris since 1937 and writes in French, the convulsive manner characteristic of German neo-philosophical thinking, whose motto is: aphorism or eternity. (Examples: the philosophical aphorisms of Lichtenberg and Novalis; Nietzsche of course; passages in Rilke’s Duino Elegies; and Kafka’s Reflections on Love, Sin, Hope, Death, the Way.)

Cioran’s method of broken argument is not the objective kind of aphoristic writing of La Rochefoucauld or Gracian, whose stopping and starting movement mirrors the disjunctive aspects of “the world,” but rather bears witness to the impasse of the speculative mind, which moves outward only to be checked and broken off by the complexity of its own stance. For Cioran the aphoristic style is less a principle of reality than a principle of knowing: that it’s the destiny of every profound idea to be quickly checkmated by another idea, which it itself has implicitly generated.

Still hoping to command something resembling its former prestige, philosophy now undertakes to give evidence incessantly of its own good faith. Though the existing range of conceptual tools for philosophy could no longer be felt to carry meaning in themselves, they might be recertified: through the passion of the thinker.

Philosophy is conceived as the personal task of the thinker. Thought becomes “thinking,” and thinking—by a further turn of the screw—is redefined as worthless unless an extreme act, a risk. Thinking becomes confessional, exorcistic: an inventory of the most personal exacerbations of thinking.

Notice that the Cartesian leap is retained as the first move. Existence is still defined as thinking. The difference is that it’s not any kind of cogitation, but only a certain kind of difficult thinking. Thought and existence are neither brute facts nor logical givens, but paradoxical, unstable situations. Hence, the possibility of conceiving the essay that gives the title to one of Cioran’s books and to the first collection of his work in English, The Temptation to Exist. “To exist,” Cioran says in that essay, is a habit I do not despair of acquiring.”

Cioran’s subject: on being a mind, a consciousness tuned to the highest pitch of refinement. The final justification of his writings, if one may guess at it: something close to the thesis given its classical statement in Kleist’s “On the Pup-pet Theatre.” In that essay Kleist says that, however much we may long to repair the disorders in the natural harmony of man created by consciousness, this is not to be accomplished by a surrender of consciousness. There is no return, no going back to innocence. We have no choice but to go to the end of thought, there ( perhaps), in total self-consciousness, to re-cover grace and innocence.

In Cioran’s writings, therefore, the mind is a voyeur.

But not upon “the world.” Upon itself. Cioran is, to a degree reminiscent of Beckett, concerned with the absolute integrity of thought. That is, with the reduction or circumscription of thought to thinking about thinking. “The only free mind,” Cioran remarks, is the one that, pure of all intimacy with bring or objects, plies its own vacuity.”

Yet, throughout, this act of mental disembowelment retains its ‘Faustian” or “Western” passionateness. Cioran will allow no possibility that anyone born into this culture can attain—as a way out of the trap—an “Eastern” abnegation of mind. (Compare Cioran’s self-consciously futile longing for the East with Levi-Strauss’ affirmative nostalgia for “neolithic consciousness.)

Philosophy becomes tortured thinking. Thinking that devours itself—and continues intact and even flourishes, in spite (or perhaps because) of these repeated acts of self-cannibalism. In the passion play of thought, the thinker plays the roles of both protagonist and antagonist. Ile is both suffering Prometheus and the remorseless eagle who consumes his perpetually regenerated entrails.

Impossible states of being, unthinkable thoughts are Cioran’s material for speculation. (Thinking against oneself, etc.) But he comes after Nietzsche, who set down almost the whole of Cioran’s position a century ago. An interesting question: why does a subtle, powerful mind consent to say what has, for the most part, already been said? In order to make those ideas genuinely his own? Because, while they were true when originally set down, they have since become more true?

Whatever the answer, the “fact” of Nietzsche has undeniable consequences for Cioran. He must tighten the screws, make the argument denser. More excruciating. More rhetorical.

Characteristically, Cioran begins an essay where another writer would end it. Beginning with the conclusion, he goes on from there.

His kind of writing is meant for readers who in a sense already know what he says; they have traversed these vertiginous thoughts for themselves. Cioran doesn’t make any of the usual efforts to “persuade,” with his oddly lyrical chains of ideas, his merciless irony, his gracefully delivered allusions to nothing less than the whole of European thought since the Creeks. An argument is to be “recognized,” and without too much help. Coed taste demands that the thinker furnish only pithy glimpses of intellectual and spiritual torment. Hence, Cioran’s tone—one of immense dignity, dogged, sometimes playful, often haughty. But despite all that may appear as arrogance, there is nothing complacent in Cioran, unless it be his very sense of futility and his uncompromisingly elitist attitude toward the life of the mind.

As Nietzsche wanted to will his moral solitude, Cioran wants to will the difficult. Not that the essays are hard to read, but their moral point, so to speak, is the unending disclosure of difficulty. The argument of a typical Cioran essay might be described as a network of proposals for thinking—along with dissipations of the grounds for continuing to hold these ideas, not to mention the grounds for “acting” on the basis of them. By his complex intellectual formulation of intellectual impasses, Cioran constructs a closed universe—of the difficult—that is the subject of his lyricism.

Cioran is one of the most delicate minds of real power writing today. Nuance, irony, and refinement are the essence of his thinking. Yet he declares in the essay “On a Winded Civilization”: “Men’s minds need a simple truth, an answer which delivers them from their questions, a gospel, a tomb. The moments of refinement conceal a death-principle: nothing is more fragile than subtlety.”

A contradiction? Not exactly. It is only the familiar double standard of philosophy since its debacle: upholding one standard ( health) for the culture at large, another (spiritual ambition) for the solitary philosopher. The first standard demands what Nietzsche called the sacrifice of the intellect. The second standard demands the sacrifice of health, of mundane happiness, often of participation in family life and other community institutions, perhaps even of sanity. The philosopher’s aptitude for martyrdom Is almost part of his good manners, in this tradition of philosophizing since Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. And one of the commonest indications of his good taste as a philosopher is an avowed contempt for philosophy. Thus, Wittgenstein’s idea that philosophy is some-thing like a disease and the job of the philosopher is to study philosophy as the physician studies malaria, not to pass it on but to cure people of it.

But whether such behavior is diagnosed as the self-hatred of the philosopher or as merely a certain coquetry of the void, more than inconsistency must be allowed here. In Cioran’s case, his disavowals of mind are not less authentic because they’re delivered by someone who makes such strenuous professional use of the mind. Consider the impassioned counsels in an essay of 1952, “Some Blind Alleys: A Letter”—in which Cioran, a steadily published writer in France, puts himself in the curious position of reproaching a friend about to become that “monster,” an author, and violate his admirable “detachment, scorn, and silence” by describing them in a book. Cioran is not just displaying a facile ambivalence toward his own vocation, but voicing the painful, genuinely paradoxical experience that the free intellect can have of itself when it commits itself to writing and acquires an audience. Anyway, it is one thing to choose martyrdom and compromise for oneself; quite another, to advise a friend to do likewise. And since for Cioran the use of the mind is a martyrdom, using one’s mind in public—more specifically, being a writer—becomes a problematic, partly shameful act; always suspect; in the last analysis, something obscene, socially as well as individually.

Cioran is another recruit to the melancholy parade of European intellectuals in revolt against the intellect—the rebellion of idealism against “idealism”—whose greatest figures are Nietzsche and Marx. A good part of his argument on this theme differs little from what has already been stated by countless poets and philosophers in the last century and this—not to mention the sinister, traumatic amplification of these charges against the intellect in the rhetoric and practice of fascism. But the fact that an important argument is not new doesn’t mean that one is exempted from taking it seriously. And what could be more relevant than the thesis, reworked by Cioran, that the free use of the mind is ultimately anti-social, detrimental to the health of the community?

In a number of essays, but most clearly in “On a Winded Civilization” and “A Little Theory of Destiny,” Cioran ranges himself firmly on the side of the critics of the Enlightenment. “Since the Age of the Enlightenment,” he writes, “Europe has ceaselessly sapped her idols in the name of tolerance.” But these idols or “prejudices—organic fictions of a civilization—, assure its duration, preserve its physiognomy. It must re-sped them.” Elsewhere in the first of the essays mentioned above: “A minimum of unconsciousness is necessary if one wants to stay inside history.” Foremost among “the diseases that undermine a civilization” is the hypertrophy of thought itself, which leads to the disappearance of the capacity for “inspired stupidity . . . fruitful exaltation, never compromised by a consciousness drawn and quartered.” For any civilization “vacillates as soon as it exposes the errors which permitted its growth and its luster, as soon as it calls into question its own truths.” And Cioran goes on, all too familiarly, to lament the suppression of the barbarian, of the non-thinker, in Europe. “All his instincts are throttled by his decency,” is his comment on the Englishman. Protected from ordeal, “sapped by nostalgia, that generalized ennui,” the average European is now monopolized and obsessed by “the concept of living well (that mania of declining periods).” Al-ready Europe has passed to “a provincial destiny.” The new masters of the globe are the less civilized peoples of America and Russia and, waiting in the wings of history, the hordes of violent millions from still less civilized “suburbs of the globe” in whose hands the future resides.

Much of the old argument comes without transformation at Cioran’s hands. The old heroism, the denunciation of the mind by the mind, served up once again in the name of the antitheses: heart versus head, instinct versus reason. —Too much lucidity” results in a loss of equilibrium. (One of the arguments behind Cioran’s expressed mistrust, in “Blind Alleys” and “Style as Risk,” of the book, the linguistic communication, literature itself—at least in the present age.) But at least one of the familiar antitheses—thought versus action—is refined. In “On a Winded Civilization,” Cioran shares the standard view of the nineteenth-century romantics, and is mainly concerned with the toll that the exercise of the mind takes on the ability to act. “To act is one thing: to know one is acting is another. When lucidity invests the action, in-sinuates itself into it, action is undone and, with it, prejudice, whose function consists, precisely, in subordinating, in enslaving consciousness to action.” In ‘Thinking Against Oneself,” however, the antithesis of thought and action is rendered in a more subtle and original manner. Thought is not simply that which impedes the direct, energetic performance of an act. Here, Cioran is more concerned with the inroads that action makes upon thought. Pointing out that “the sphere of consciousness shrinks in action,” he supports the idea of a liberation” from action as the only genuine mode of human freedom.

And even in the relatively simplistic argument of “On a Winded Civilization,” when Cioran does invoke that exemplary European figure, “the tired intellectual,” it’s not simply to inveigh against the vocation of the intellectual, but to try to locate the exact difference between two states well worth distinguishing: being civilized and that mutilation of the organic person sometimes, tendentiously, called being “over-civilized.” One may quarrel about the term, but the condition exists and is rampant—common among professional intellectuals, though scarcely confined to them. And, as Cioran correctly points out, a principal danger of being overcivilized is that one all too easily relapses, out of sheer exhaustion and the unsatisfied need to be ‘stimulated,” into a vulgar and passive barbarism. Thus, “the man who unmasks his fictions” through an indiscriminate pursuit of the lucidity that is promoted by modern liberal culture “renounces his own re-sources and, in a sense, himself. Consequently, he will accept other fictions which will deny him, since they will not have cropped up from his own depths.” Therefore, he concludes, .’no man concerned with his own equilibrium may exceed a certain degree of lucidity and analysis.”

Yet this counsel of moderation does not, in the end, limit Cioran’s own enterprise. Saturated with a sense of the well-advertised and (in his belief) irreversible decline of European civilization, this model European thinker becomes, it would seem, emancipated from responsibility to his own health as well as his society’s. For all his scorn for the enervated condition and the provincial destiny of the civilization of which he is a member, Oman is also a gifted elegist of that civilization. Among the last, perhaps, of the elegists of the passing of “Europe—of the European suffering, of European intellectual courage, of European vigor, of European overcomplexity. And determined, himself, to pursue that venture to its end.

His sole ambition: “to be abreast of the Incurable.”

A doctrine of spiritual strenuousness. “Since every form of life betrays and corrupts Life, the man who is genuinely alive assumes a maximum of incompatibilities, works relentlessly at pleasure and pain alike…” (I am quoting from The Temptation to Exist.”) And there can be no doubt in Cioran’s thought that this most ambitious of all states of consciousness, while remaining truer to Life in the generic sense, to the full range of human prospects, is paid for dearly on the level of mundane existence. In terms of action, it means the acceptance of futility. Futility must be seen not as a frustration of one’s hopes and aspirations, but as a prized and defended vantage point for the athletic leap of consciousness into its own complexity. It is of this desirable state that Cioran is speaking when he says: “Futility is the most difficult thing in the world.” It requires that we “must sever our roots, must become metaphysically foreigners.”

That Cioran conceives of this as being so formidable and difficult a task testifies perhaps to his own residual, un-quenchable good health. It also may explain why his essay “A People of Solitaries” is, to my mind, one of the few things Cioran has ever written that falls well below his usual standard of brilliance and perspicacity. Writing on the Jews, who “represent the alienated condition par excellence” for Cioran no less than for Hegel and a host of intervening writers, Cioran displays a startling moral insensitivity to the contemporary aspects of his theme. Even without the example of Sartre’s near-definitive treatment of the same subject in Anti-Semite and Jew, one could scarcely help finding Cioran’s essay surprisingly cursory and highhanded.

A strange dialectic in Cioran: familiar elements fused in a complex mix. On the one hand, the traditional Romantic and vitalist contempt for “intellectuality” and for the hyper-trophy of the mind at the expense of the body and the feelings and of the capacity for action. On the other hand, an exaltation of the life of the mind at the expense of body, feelings, and the capacity for action that could not be more radical and imperious.

The nearest model for this paradoxical attitude toward consciousness is the Gnostic-mystical tradition that, in Western Christianity, descends from Dionysius the Areopagite and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing.

And what Cioran says of the mystic applies perfectly to his own thought. “The mystic, in most cases, invents his adversaries . . . his thought asserts the existence of others by calculation, by artifice: it is a strategy of no consequence. His thought boils down, in the last instance, to a polemic with himself: he seeks to be, he becomes a crowd, even if it is only by making himself one new mask after the other, multiplying his faces: in which he resembles his Creator, whose histrionics he perpetuates.”

Despite the irony in this passage, Cioran’s envy of the mystics, whose enterprise so resembles his—”to find what escapes or survives the disintegration of his experiences: the residue of intemporality under the ego’s vibrations”—is frank and unmistakable. Yet, like his master Nietzsche, Cioran re-mains nailed to the cross of an atheist spirituality. And his essays are best read as a manual of such an atheist spirituality. “Once we have ceased linking our secret life to God, we can ascend to ecstasies as effective as those of the mystics and conquer this world without recourse to the Beyond,” is the opening sentence of the last paragraph of the essay “Dealing with the Mystics.”

Politically, Cioran must be described as a conservative. Liberal humanism is for him simply not a viable or interesting option at all, and he regards the hope of radical revolution as something to be outgrown by the mature mind. (Thus, speaking of Russia in “A Little Theory of Destiny,” he remarks: “The aspiration to ‘save’ the world is a morbid phenomenon of a people’s youth?)

It may be relevant to recall that Cioran was born (in 1911) in Romania, virtually all of whose distinguished expatriate intellectuals have been either apolitical or overtly reactionary; and that his only other book, besides the five collections of essays, is an edition of the writings of Joseph de Maistre (published in 1957), for which he %%tote the introduction and selected the texts.[1] While he never develops anything like an explicit theology of counterrevolution in the manner of Maistre, those arguments seem close to Cioran’s tacit position. Like Maistre, Donoso Cortés, and, more recently, Eric Voegelin, Cioran possesses what might be described—viewed from one angle—as a right-wing “Catholic” sensibility. The modem habit of fomenting revolutions against the established social order in the name of justice and equality is dismissed as a kind of childish fanaticism, much as an old cardinal might regard the activities of some uncouth millennarian sect. Within the same framework, one can locate Cioran’s description of Marxism as that sin of optimism: and his stand against the Enlightenment ideals of “tolerance” and freedom of thought. (It’s perhaps worth noting, too, that Cioran is the son of a Creek Orthodox priest.)

Yet, while Cioran projects a recognizable political stance, though one present only implicitly in most of the essays, his approach is not, in the end, grounded in a religious commitment. However much his political, moral sympathies have in common with the right-wing Catholic sensibility, Cioran himself, as I have already said, is committed to the paradoxes of an atheist theology. Faith alone, he argues, solves nothing. Perhaps what prevents Cioran from making the commitment, even in a secular form, to something like the Catholic theology of order is that he understands too well and shares too many of the spiritual presuppositions of the Ro-mantic movement. Critic of left-wing revolution that he may be, and a slightly snobbish analyst of the fact “that rebellion enjoys an undue privilege among us,” (loran cannot disavow the lesson that “almost all our discoveries are due to our violences, to the exacerbations of our instability.” Thus, along-side the conservative implications of some of the essays. with their scornful treatment of the phenomenology of uprooted-ness, one must set the ironic-positive attitude toward rebellion expressed in “Thinking Against Oneself,” an essay which concludes with the admonition that, “since the Absolute corresponds to a meaning we have not been able to cultivate, let us surrender to all rebellions: they will end by turning against themselves, against us…”

Cioran is clearly unable to withhold admiration from what is extravagant, willful, extreme—one example of which is the extravagant, willful ascesis of the great Western mystics. An-other is the fund of extremity stored up in the experience of the great madmen. “We derive our vitality from our store of madness,” he writes in “The Temptation to Exist.” Yet, in the essay on the mystics, he speaks of “our capacity to Ring our-selves into a madness that is not sacred. In the unknown, we can go as far as the saints, without making use of their means. It will be enough for us to constrain reason to a long silence.”

What makes Cioran’s position not truly conservative in the modern sense is that his is, above all, an aristocratic stance.

See, for only one illustration of the resources of this stance, his essay “Beyond the Novel: in which the novel is eloquently and persuasively condemned for its spiritual vulgarity—for Its devotion to what Cioran calls “destiny in lower case.”

Throughout Cioran’s writings, what is being posed is the problem of spiritual good taste. Avoiding vulgarity and the dilution of the self is the prerequisite for the arduous double task of maintaining an intact self which one is able fully to affirm and yet, at the same time, transcend. Cioran can even defend the emotion of self-pity: for the person who can no longer complain or lament has ceased, by rejecting his miseries and relegating them “outside his nature and outside his voice… to communicate with his life, which he turns into an object.” It may seem outrageous for Cioran to advocate, as he often does, resisting the vulgar temptation to be happy and of the “impasse of happiness.” But such judgments seem far from an unfeeling affectation, once one grants him his impossible project: “to be nowhere, when no external condition obliges you to do so . . . to extricate oneself from the world—what a labor of abolition!”

More realistically, perhaps the best to be hoped for is a series of situations, a life, a milieu, which leave part of the venturesome consciousness free for its labors. One may recall Cioran’s description of Spain in “A Little Theory of Destiny”: —They live in a kind of melodious asperity, a tragic non-seriousness, which saves them from vulgarity, from happiness, and from success.”

Certainly. Cioran’s writings suggest, the role of the writer isn’t likely to provide this kind of spiritual leverage. In “Advantages of Exile” and the brief “Verbal Demiurgy,” he de-scribes how the vocation of literature, particularly that of the poet, creates insurmountable conditions of inauthenticity. One may suffer, but when one deposits this suffering in literature, the result is “an accumulation of confusions, an inflation of horrors, of frissons that date. One cannot keep renewing Hell, whose very character is monotony…

Whether the vocation of the philosopher is any less compromised can hardly be proved. (Reason is dying. Cioran says in “Style as Risk,” in both philosophy and art.) But at least philosophy, I imagine Cioran feels, maintains somewhat higher standards of decorum. Untempted by the same kind of fame or emotional rewards that can descend on the poet, the philosopher can perhaps better comprehend and respect the modesty of the inexpressible.

 When Cioran describes Nietzsche’s philosophy as “a sum of attitudes”—mistakenly scrutinized by. scholars for the constants that the philosopher has rejected—it’s clear that he accepts the Nietzschean standard, with its critique of “truth” as system and consistency, as his own.

In “Blind Alleys,” Cioran speaks of “the stupidities inherent in the cult of truth.” The implication, here and elsewhere, is that what the true philosopher says isn’t something “true” but rather something necessary or liberating. For “the truth” is identified with depersonalization.

Once again, the line from Nietzsche to Cioran cannot be overemphasized. And for both writers, the critique of “truth” is intimately connected with the attitude toward “history.”

Thus, one cannot understand Nietzsche’s questioning of the value of truth in general and of the usefulness of historical truth in particular without grasping the link between the two notions. Nietzsche doesn’t reject historical thinking because it is false. On the contrary, it must be rejected because it is true—a debilitating truth that has to be overthrown to allow a more inclusive orientation for human consciousness.

As Cioran says in “The Temptation to Exist”: “History is merely an inessential mode of being, the most effective form of our infidelity to ourselves, a metaphysical refusal.” And, in -Thinking Against Oneself,” he refers to “history, man’s aggression against himself.”

Granted that the stamp of Nietzsche appears both on the form of Cioran’s thinking and on his principal attitudes, where he most resembles Nietzsche is in his temperament. It’s the temperament or personal style shared with Nietzsche that explains the connections, in Cioran’s work, between such disparate materials as: the emphasis on the strenuousness of an ambitious spiritual life; the project of self-mastery through “thinking against oneself”; the recurrent Nietzschean thematics of strength versus weakness, health versus sickness; the savage and sometimes shrill deployment of irony (quite different from the near systematic, dialectical interplay of irony and seriousness to be found in Kierkegaard’s writings); the preoccupation with the struggle against banality and boredom; the ambivalent attitude toward the poet’s vocation; the seductive but always finally resisted lure of religious consciousness; and, of course, the hostility toward history and to most aspects of “modem” life.

What’s missing in Cioran’s work is anything comparable to Nietzsche’s heroic effort to surmount nihilism (the doctrine of eternal recurrence).

And where Cioran most differs from Nietzsche is in not following Nietzsche’s critique of Platonism. Contemptuous of history, yet haunted by time and mortality, Nietzsche still re-fused anything harking back to the rhetoric established by Plato for going beyond time and death, and indeed worked hard at exposing what he thought the essential fraud and bad faith involved in the Platonic intellectual transcendence. Cioran, apparently, hasn’t been convinced by Nietzsche’s arguments. All the venerable Platonic dualisms reappear in Cioran’s writings, essential links of the argument, used with no more than an occasional hint of ironic reserve. One finds time versus eternity, mind versus body, spirit versus matter; and the more modern ones, too: life versus Life, and being versus existence. How seriously these dualisms are intended is hard to decide.

Could one regard the Platonist machinery in Cioran’s thought as an aesthetic code? Or, alternatively, as a kind of moral therapy? But Nietzsche’s critique of Platonism would still apply and still remain unanswered.

The only figure in the world of Anglo-American letters embarked on a theoretical enterprise comparable in intellectual power and scope to Cioran’s is John Cage.

Also a thinker in the post- and anti-philosophical tradition of broken, aphoristic discourse, Cage shares with Cioran a revulsion against “psychology” and against “history” and a commitment to a radical transvaluation of values. But while comparable in range, interest, and energy to Cioran’s, Cage’s thought mainly offers the most radical contrast to it. From what must be assumed to be the grossest difference of temperament, Cage envisages a world in which most of Cioran’s problems and tasks simply don’t exist. Cioran’s universe of discourse is occupied with the themes of sickness (individual and social), impasse, suffering, mortality. What his essays offer is diagnosis and, if not outright therapy, at least a manual of spiritual good taste through which one might be helped to keep one’s life from being turned into an object, a thing. Cage’s universe of discourse—no less radical and spiritually ambitious than Cioran’s—refuses to admit these themes.

In contrast to Cioran’s unrelenting elitism, Cage envisages a totally democratic world of the spirit, a world of “natural activity” in which “it is understood that everything is clean: there is no dirt.” In contrast to Cioran’s baroque standards of good and bad taste in intellectual and moral matters, Cage maintains there is no such thing as good or bad taste. In contrast to Cioran’s vision of error and decline and (possible) redemption of one’s acts, Cage proposes the perennial possibility of errorless behavior, if only we will allow it to be so. ‘Error is a fiction, has no reality in fact. Errorless music is written by not giving a thought to cause and effect. Any other kind of music always has mistakes in it. In other words there is no split between spirit and matter.” And elsewhere in the same book from which these quotes are taken, Silence: “flow can we speak of error when it is understood ‘psychology never again?’ In contrast to Cioran’s goal of infinite adaptability and intellectual agility (how to find the correct vantage point, the right place to stand in a treacherous world), Cage proposes for our experience a world in which it’s never preferable to do other than we are doing or be elsewhere than we are. “It is only irritating,” he says, “to think one would like to be some-where else. Here we are now.”

What becomes clear, in the context of this comparison, is how devoted Cioran is to the will and its capacity to transform the world. Compare Cage’s: “Do you only take the position of doing nothing, and things will of themselves become trans-formed.” What different views can follow the radical rejection of history is seen by thinking first of Cioran and then of Cage, who writes: “To be & be the present Would it be a repetition? Only if we thought we owned It, but since we don’t, it is free & so are we.”

Reading Cage, one becomes aware how much Cioran is still confined within the premises of the historicizing conscious-ness; how inescapably he continues to repeat these gesture; much as he longs to transcend them. Of necessity then, Cioran’s thought is halfway between anguished reprise of these gestures and a genuine transvaluation of them. Perhaps, for a unified transvaluation, one must look to those thinkers like Cage who—whether from spiritual strength or from spiritual insensitivity is a secondary issue—are able to jettison far more of the inherited anguish and complexity of this civilization. Cioran’s fierce, tensely argued speculations sum up brilliantly the decaying urgencies of Western thought, but offer us no relief from them beyond the consider-able satisfactions of the understanding. Relief, of course, is scarcely Cioran’s intention. His aim is diagnosis. For relief, it may be that one must abandon the pride of knowing and feeling so much—a local pride that has cost everyone hideously by now.

Novalis wrote that “philosophy is properly home-sickness; the wish to be everywhere at home.- lithe human mind can be everywhere at home, it must in the end give up its local “European” pride and something else—that will seem strangely unfeeling and intellectually simplistic—must be al-lowed in. “All that is necessary,- says Cage with his own devastating irony, “is an empty space of time and letting it act in its magnetic way.”

(1967)

From: Susan SONTAG. Styles of radical will. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969


[1] He has also published an essay on Machiavelli and one on St-John Perse—both as yet uncollected.