It is an unenviable task for a biographer to dig up the dirt in someone’s life, and it is worth the effort only if the achievements of the person whose biography he has embarked on writing at least equals the disgrace. Fortunately, writing a biography of the brilliant writer and thinker Emil Cioran was worth the effort. Born in Romania in 1911, Cioran spent most of his life in France, where he gained the reputation of a great French stylist. Recognition of his literary achievements came with the Paul Morand prize for literature accorded by the French Academy, the highest intellectual institution in France. (Cioran declined this award, as he declined other awards).
But in distinction to the French period of the philosopher’s literary glory, the Romanian period is rather shameful. As Marta Petreu documents in her excellent An Infamous Past: E.M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania, the young Cioran was involved in promoting Fascism. Of course, the twentieth century abounds in intellectuals who actively supported ideological movements. The list of those who have succumbed to the charms of communism, for instance, is endless.
Fascism, on the other hand, was from the beginning culturally destructive and sterile, and attracted relatively few intellectuals beyond Heidegger, Céline, and Pound. It is particularly shocking to read about Cioran’s enthusiasm for Hitler. At the age of twenty-three, as a holder of a doctoral stipend in Berlin, he wrote: “When I see the Hitler Youth marching on the streets of Berlin, all dressed in uniform, . . . I cannot help being outraged and disgusted by the gap that separates the German youth from the Romanian.” Statements like this are not uncommon in his writings from that period. But, as Marta Petreu points out, Cioran’s attraction to Hitlerism was never the mindless submission of his intellect to the state ideology; it was always mitigated by his own consideration. Cioran saw Hitlerism as a “narrow” ideology, based on an “unreadable . . . literature.” In contradistinction to communism—and here lies the crux of his commitment—it had the power to galvanize a nation: “If I were to see a Communist youth as dynamic as the German one, I would be just as thrilled.”
Romania in Cioran’s youth was an underdeveloped country, consisting mainly of a peasant population. As part of the Ottoman Empire, Romania did not go through the Enlightenment, industrialization, and nation building that formed the development of Western European countries. As a young man, Cioran fell under Spengler’s spell. His constant comparisons of Romania to Germany and France became his youthful obsession. The other nations’ cultural achievements created in him a feeling of personal humiliation. Spengler’s classification of cultures as major and peripheral made Cioran believe that only the mobilization of the national spirit was capable of raising Romania from the midst of a cultural abyss.
After declaring its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1871, and the events of World War I (which gained her the territory of Transylvania), Romania was transformed from an essentially ethnically unified nation into a melting pot of several nations, where minorities constituted 29 percent of the population. Fascism appeared to offer—particularly when seen through the prism of the “revitalized” Germany of Hitler—a vision of a nation with a historical destiny. Democracy, the internationalism of capitalism, and communism, on the other hand, were perceived as hindrance to the development of a nation—a nation that one could feel proud of belonging to.
In addition to articles written during the 1930s, Petreu’s main source for reconstructing Cioran’s Romanian philosophy, is his Transfiguration, published in 1936. The book contains an elaborate treatment of the dictatorial way in which the transfiguration of Romania—from a peasant country to an industrialized and modern one, an international player—could supposedly be accomplished. It also contains a catalogue of insults about his countrymen (“hideous, starving peasants”). These vices, Cioran believed, could be turned into virtues only through the “acceleration” of national development by means of dictatorship. Paradoxically, Cioran’s ardent desire to put Romania on the map of Europe made him commit himself to promote Fascist dictatorship. Cioran’s hatred for everything that hampered the development of the national idea led to a hatred for everything foreign—and a belief in a foreign ideology to accomplish his goal of “Romanism.”
Particularly interesting in Cioran’s biography is the chapter devoted to anti-Semitism. As Petreu points out, anti-Semitism hardly existed historically among Romanians. During the interwar period, however, anti-Jewish feelings began to find a peculiar twist. The Jews were perceived as those who promoted democracy and capitalism—paradoxically, again, everything that could help Romania to drag herself from her cultural slumber—but reserved the right to practice their own nationalism without wanting others to do it. In intellectual terms, this perception of Jews could be translated into an acknowledgment of a Jewish right to strong identity—the identity that Cioran admired for its cultural vibrancy and took as his model—and an awareness of the lack of a parallel mechanism that would give Romanians a sense of national identity to redeem their past.
From 1927 to 1939, democracy and capitalism on the one side and the national idea on the other clashed, leading to the rise of Romanian Fascism. Cioran’s Transfiguration did not receive particularly warm praise on the right, but it was well-known. As Petreu says, there is no evidence that Nicolai Ceausescu, Romania’s later Communist dictator, read the book, but his megalomaniac vision of “Great Romania” bears resemblance to Cioran’s general thought from the 1930s. Although Cioran would later despise Ceausescu for his mental primitivism, his 1930s praise of dictatorship, which, he believed, could transform Romania, can be recognized in Ceausescu’s economic, social, and cultural policies.
The French Cioran—Cioran without his national preoccupations—is an entirely different person. His French voice is gentle and lacks the militant spirit. Sometimes it tacitly points out the hidden danger in the German spirit. In All Gall Is Divided (1951), Cioran writes: “Had Napoleon occupied Germany with the citizens of Marseilles, the face of the world would be altogether different.” And “Might the solemn nations be meridionalized? The future of Europe hangs on this question. If the Germans return to their labors as before, the West is doomed.” In another aphorism, we read, “Luther, that prefiguration of modern man, assumed every kind of disequilibrium: both a Pascal and a Hitler cohabited within him.”
So what prompted the young Cioran to fall into this trap of thinking that a German form of dictatorship could “accelerate” Romania’s development in the realm of ideas? Simplistic as it may sound, the answer may be his youthful impatience. In 1968, when he saw the youth rebelling on the streets of Paris—also in the name of a “transfiguration” of French society—Cioran wrote to his friend: “The only thing I can tell you about the recent events in my neighborhood is that they reminded me of the ‘heroic’ age of the Iron Guard. . . . Nothing will come of it. . . . Quite decidedly, I am getting older.”
And yet, it would be too easy to absolve someone—particularly a man who, at the age of twenty-six, was the author of three books and the manuscript of a beautiful book of aphorisms about mystics, Tears and Saints—by devolving his moral responsibility on the silliness characteristic of a young age. Tears and Saints, completed before his departure for Paris, reveals exceptional maturity of intellect and religious sensitivity. Reading it, we find it all the more difficult to understand Cioran’s admiration for the Hitler Youth movement harnessed in the service of evil.
His “Learning from the Tyrants,” in History and Utopia (1954), corroborates his youthful choice: “Tragic paradox of freedom: The mediocre men who alone make its [the republic’s] exercise possible cannot guarantee its duration. We owe everything to their insignificance, and we lose everything by it. . . . It is this mediocrity that I hated in the days when I unreservedly loved tyrants. . . . In order not to yield to political temptation, we must keep a close watch over ourselves at every moment. How to manage this, especially in a democratic regime, whose essential vice is to permit anyone at all to seek power.”
Cioran, of course, is not the first one to reveal the traditional contempt for democratic mediocrity, which was shared by democratic theoreticians themselves (including Benjamin Franklin). But the contempt Cioran had for his own people was probably helpful in fostering his early anti-democratic prejudice and made it easier for him to accept this premise in the 1930s as the only valid political constant. By 1954, he could add, “Yet it is their very nullity that permits and secures our liberties.”
Marta Petreu tries to locate the source of Cioran’s youthful engagement by pointing to his stylistic ingenuity. According to her, there is a link between Cioran and the Greek Sophists, for whom truth and falsehood, due to verbal manipulation, could be true and false at the same time. For Cioran, she writes, “the only reality was that of the verbal universe.”
One should note, however, that Cioran belongs first and foremost to the tradition of Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, the seventeenth-century Libertines, and the later existentialist tradition, with which he shared his preoccupation with death, the paradoxes of human existence, morality, religion, God. However lightly the Libertines approached the question of moral absolutes, they did not abrogate the traditional moral distinctions. A typical Cioranian aphorism runs: “Some people still wonder if life has meaning. In fact, it all comes down to knowing whether it is bearable. Then ‘problems’ cease and decisions begin.” Or: “We are all humbugs: We survive our problems.” These aphorisms sound much more like La Rochefoucauld’s maxims or statements of existentialist philosophers.
In 1991, stricken by the Alzheimer’s disease that impaired his speech, he whispered: “I . . . am . . . not . . . an . . . anti- . . . Semite.” This sentence is worth quoting not merely because it suggests that Cioran recognized the wrongness of the deeds which sullied his past and cost others their lives. It is also a dying stylist’s recognition of moral absolutes that neither the “historical acceleration” nor the “libertinism” of his style abrogated.
Cioran was haunted by his past throughout his French period. “The writer who has done some stupid things in his youth, upon his debut, is like a woman with a shameful past. Never forgiven, never forgotten,” he wrote his brother in 1979. Marta Petreu’s biography is a well-documented account of everything shameful that Cioran ever wrote. The true virtue of her account, however, lies in the fact that it is not limited to merely exposing one person’s shameful past. Petreu’s biography covers much of European history of that period, the social conditions of the post-Versailles Treaty Europe that help to understand how a thinker of Cioran’s caliber could commit himself to promoting one of the most wretched ideologies.
Cioran’s life in France was politically and socially uneventful. Consistent with his own maxim—“To want fame is to prefer dying scorned than forgotten”—Cioran shunned the world. During the last decade of his life, he even stopped frequenting cafes and attending social events, limiting his pleasures to strolling in Jardin du Luxembourg. With the exception of Rivarol prize, which he was awarded for his A Short History of Decay, his first book published in France, he never accepted any literary prize. Nor did he ever hold an official professional position. During his early Parisian period he was helped financially by his close friend Samuel Beckett. (Beckett was also the first one to introduce Cioran to an English-speaking audience in a 1961 issue of Evergreen Review.) He made his very modest living as a free-lance reviewer and translator for different publishing houses.
Despite the fact that all of his works have been translated into English, Cioran is known in the United States almost exclusively to a small group of American intelligentsia. In part the reason for this lies in his aphoristic style, which does not lend itself to presentation as a system or a clear idea of which department of thought—theology, philosophy or political theory—they belong to, even though, like Pascal’s “pensées,” they belong to each of them. Cioran was always aware of the “cracks” in reality that cannot be presented as a philosophical system. If “all are lunatics, but he who can analyze his delusions is called a philosopher,” philosophy must assume an “existential” character, rather than a system.
In many ways, Cioran is a much more interesting thinker than his fellow philosophical aphorizer Nietzsche—and, in my opinion, much more relevant today than the nineteenth-century slayer of God. Cioran does not rejoice in heralding the death of God as the beginning of a “better” era. On the contrary, he seems to be very pessimistic when he writes that “a civilization is destroyed only when its gods are destroyed.” Still, his insights into philosophy and religion are far from consoling: “Apart from matter, everything is music: God himself is but a resonant hallucination.” For a theologian this is blasphemy; for a “systematic” philosopher it is a literary play on words. Be that as it may, as Richard Howard aptly put it in the introduction to his translation of Cioran’s All Gall is Divided: “Not since Nietzsche has any thinker revealed himself so drastically.”
Cioran once remarked: “Paris is the place to waste one’s life.” He was born Romanian but for all intents and purposes he was a French writer, and he is considered as such by the French. Still, even as a Frenchman, Cioran did more for Romania’s reputation than the dictatorial “acceleration” of the Iron Guard to which he sold his soul as a young man.
Zbigniew Janowski is the author of Augustinian-Cartesian Index: Texts and Commentary and the forthcoming How to Read Descartes’s Meditations.