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You can trace, through the history of philosophy, a line of aphorism—that odd, somewhat disreputable method of doing philosophy as a kind of bastard poetry. Maybe even as a kind of magic: truth as something to be summoned by careful incantation and the weird precision of a witch’s spell.

It starts with Heraclitus, of course, and the deliberately obscure metaphysical assertions that either began as aphorisms or, left as fragments from his lost essays, ended up that way: Time is a child moving counters in a game, and The way up and the way down are one, and We both step and do not step in the same rivers. Epicurus, perhaps, did philosophy in this epigrammatical way. Diogenes and Marcus Aurelius certainly did. And then there are all the half-lost Greeks: Sophists, ­Epicureans, Atomists, Cynics, Skeptics, and Stoics, together with occasional Presocratics and random Neoplatonists and stray Peripatetics—the long parade of ancients whose words survive only in the scraps and slivers that make them sound like maddened masters of philosophical concision.

Revived in the Renaissance, this method of doing philosophy by dictum and adage would flower particularly among the French: the civilized Montaigne, the polished La Rochefoucauld, the God-haunted Pascal. Spinoza did a little of it, from time to time. Nietzsche’s aphorisms would raise the method to a high art form in the nineteenth century, and Wittgenstein’s zettel would return it in the twentieth century to the pure philosophical density with which it began in Heraclitus.

Interestingly, you can also trace a line of pessimism through the history of philosophy, and it would weave in and out to touch this line of aphorists at a surprising number of points. Perhaps none of them quite reach the grim perfection of Samuel Beckett’s image of existence as the brief fall from a bloody womb to a splattered death—of human life as a woman giving birth while she squats astride an open grave. But it’s there, often enough, in the senseless physical universe perceived by the ancient Cynics and Skeptics and even some of the Stoics. It’s there among the Epicureans, too, for all that they demand the pursuit of pleasure: “From the heart of the fountain of delight,” as Lucretius points out, “there rises a jet of bitterness that tortures us among the flowers.”

Strip out the passages on grace, and you can find as bleak a vision—in fact, a bleaker vision—in Christian philosophy, from St. Augustine on. “Imagine a number of men in chains, all under the sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others,” Pascal would write. “This is the image of the human condition.”

And what is much of nineteenth-century philosophical pessimism but Christianity without the possibility of redemption? “Against the palpably sophistical proofs of Leibniz that this is the best of all possible worlds,” Schopenhauer insisted, “we may oppose seriously and honestly the proof that it is the worst of all possible worlds.”

Here’s the curious thing, however: Both these lines, the aphoristic and the pessimistic, reach something like their pinnacle, their unsurpassable peak, in the works of a Romanian-born French writer named Emil Mihai Cioran. He was the greatest genius of aphorism in the history of philosophy, and he was the greatest monster of despair.

In the decades before his death in 1995 at age eighty-four, Cioran was often grouped among the French existentialists. The fit was never all that good; his first and in many ways most revealing book, On the Heights of Despair, was published in Romanian in 1934, when he was only twenty-three—before he could have been influenced by, say, Albert Camus. Besides, as a school of philosophy, existentialism is about as dead these days as such things can get. Who still reads Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel Marcel? They are names without content, the half-remembered authors of the dusty bestsellers on our parents’ shelves.

Cioran, however, still lives, in his grim, dark way. All of his works are in print in good translations, together with several biographical studies, and to read the man today is to realize that he makes most of his contemporaries look like children at play on a beach while an ocean looms unnoticed beyond them. It is, in fact, only in our own time, with the distraction of French existentialism finally out of the way, that E.M. Cioran comes into his own as an author—the creator of a set of reflections that refuse to be subsumed: One end of the fabric of human thought, the darkest edge, pinned firmly and forever down.

Certain themes spread like cancers through his work. That truncated Christian worldview, for instance: a sort of Augustinianism without Christ. Without hell, too—but, then, whenever pessimism is pushed far enough, damnation always begins to seem unnecessary, with this fallen world itself a kind of inferno. “Man started out on the wrong foot,” as Cioran once observed. “The misadventure in paradise was the first consequence. The rest had to follow.”

Death, too, is the constant topic, an insistence that we not flinch from the skeleton that leers at us every time we look in the mirror. Many of Cioran’s best-known aphorisms begin and end with that reflection: “It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late,” for instance, and “I live only because it is in my power to die whenever I want; without the idea of suicide I would have killed myself a long time ago.”

Both inclination and principle kept him from creating a system. What coherent structure could be built from such deadly aphorisms, anyway? But insofar as he could be systematic, he set out to reject systematically every form of consolation. If he would not allow himself the complex submission of the Christian mystics he simultaneously admired and despised, he certainly would not indulge the simplistic surrender of, say, Richard Rorty’s desire “to josh” the citizens of democracies out of their mere “habit” of wanting metaphysical foundations. “A marvel that has nothing to offer, democracy is at once a nation’s paradise and its tomb,” he sneered.

This clarity about our modern lack of metaphysical foundations may be a key to his work. Cioran was bombastic, some of the time: “If I had children, I would strangle them immediately.” He was self-obsessed, nearly all of the time: “I long to be free—desperately free. Free as the stillborn are free.” He could be brightly clever: “Progress is the injustice each generation commits with regard to its predecessors.” And he could be annoyingly opaque: “We die in proportion to the words we fling around us.”

But always he understood what the modern absence of foundations does to us: “I do not forgive myself for being born. It is as if creeping into this world, I had profaned a mystery, betrayed some momentous pledge, committed a fault of nameless gravity.” And he could never find satisfaction in the easy self-congratulation of being a rebellious doubter of other human beings’ claims to truth. “Skepticism,” he observed, “is the sadism of embittered souls.”

Cioran had a distinctive look, a compact man with the swept-back swoosh of long Einsteinian hair and an enormous, deep-crinkled forehead. The eyebrows, however, are what everyone remembers: huge, expressive things, like woolly caterpillars, that seemed to have a life of their own—a ­livelier, more active life, in truth, than the rest of his melancholy face.

The son of an Orthodox priest, Cioran was born in 1911 in the small village of Rasinari, high in the Romanian mountains. An insomniac most of his life, he found as a student something like a community in the university nightlife of Bucharest, where he was perceived as the most promising member of the new generation of Romanian intellectuals that included the playwright Eugene Ionesco, the essayist Mircea Eliade, and the philosopher Constantin Noica. Together as young men, many of them—including Cioran—fell under the spell of Nae Ionescu, their philosophy professor, who preached that a local application of fascism would create a modern Romania from the train wreck of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The much cosseted young student, promoted as the great hope of the new Romania, won the Royal Foundation’s Young Writers Prize in 1934 for his first book, On the Heights of Despair, and, after finishing his thesis on the philosophy of Henri Bergson, was awarded a major scholarship to the University of Berlin.

That was perhaps the worst place for someone of his age and training, and it quickly led him into praise of the Nazis in Germany, the Fascists in Italy, and the Iron Guard in Romania. After his second ­collection of aphorisms, the 1935 Book of Delusions, he attempted to take up some of these nationalistic themes with his third volume, The Transfiguration of Romania, in 1936.

Actually thinking his way through the topic, however, Cioran came to heterodox conclusions, and the book was promptly denounced by the Fascist press, which read it as an attack on the “spirit of Romania.” In many ways, that experience of rejection by the Fascists immunized him against the fascist temptation—and it is common to explain away his flirtation with National Socialism as merely the errors of a young thinker still finding his feet.

The fall of communism in the 1990s, however, made available more information about Cioran’s years in Romania: his 1940 radio broadcast, for instance, in praise of Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, the leader of the Iron Guard who had, Cioran declared, “given Romanians a purpose.” Marta Petreu’s 2005 An Infamous Past: E.M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania chronicles those lost early years, and Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston’s new Searching for Cioran attempts to explain how the young Romanian philosophy student dropped his political interests to become the later French writer.

Certainly, he came to see the necessary disaster of his kind of youthful enthusiasm: In 1968, while watching the student revolts in Paris, he wrote a 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.” And certainly, he knew that he had erred: “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 in 1979. But his response was not to mention any actual facts about his early years, letting the closed borders of communist Romania keep his secrets. Open admission and open repentance would have served him better.

With the publication in 1937 of Tears and Saints, his reflections on reading the mystics, he received a scholarship from the French Institute of Bucharest and left for Paris, which would remain his home for the rest of his life. In 1945 he published The Passionate Handbook, his last book written in his native language, and in 1949, after abandoning an attempt to translate Mallarme into Romanian, he published A Short History of Decay, the first of his works to be written in French.

The book was a minor sensation in its era, a time of early public acclaim for existentialism. Published by Gallimard, it won the Rivarol Prize (the last prize Cioran would accept), and, on the proceeds, he moved into a small apartment in Paris, a genuine garret, where he lived the rest of his life.

At that point, the facts of his biography seem almost to cease, as though he had withdrawn from the world except for his writing. Eight more slim volumes of aphorisms and essays followed: All Gall Is Divided (1952), The Temptation to Exist (1956), History and Utopia (1960), The Fall Into Time (1964), The New Gods (1969), The Trouble with Being Born (1973), Drawn and Quartered (1979), and Anathemas and Admirations (1986). His fame would decline slowly but steadily through the 1980s, only to revive a little before his death in 1995—although, in truth, he was lauded late in life less as a thinker and more as a mere survivor: the last of his generation still around.

That’s not the way to appreciate him—if appreciate is a word that can be used for Emil Cioran. The more one reads him, the more morbid he proves. The consciousness of death, he wrote in On the Heights of Despair, is “not the luminous drunkenness of ecstasy, in which paradisal visions conquer you with their splendor and you rise to a purity that sublimates into immateriality, but a mad, dangerous, ruinous, and tormented black drunkenness, in which death appears with the awful seduction of nightmarish snake eyes.”

Cioran’s dance with death is unmatched in the history of philosophy. Even Pascal, in comparison, appears amateurish. And yet, the case of Pascal offers some insight into what, exactly, Cioran aimed at.

Consider this: One way to take Pascal is as an author who asks, in essence, whether it is possible to live with the awareness of death. And he notices immediately our “diversions,” the ways we invent to forget that death is imminent. But such diversions can have only a temporary effect, for they merely cover what is boiling under the surface of existence. Death becomes all the more painful when we create “attachments” to life, to things, to people—to everything we know under the name of life.

Pascal saw attachment not merely as a link to earthly life but as a sign of corruption. Human beings, unable to find certainty, desperately attach themselves to what is fleeting and doomed to perish. “When I see the blind and wretched state of man, when I survey the whole universe in its dumbness and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe,” he wrote in the Pensees, “I am moved to terror. Then these lost and wretched creatures look around and find some attractive objects to which they become addicted and attached. For my part I have never been able to form such attachments.”

Cioran seized this Pascalian insight with a kind of gloomy glee. In The Trouble With Being Born, he notes, “If attachment is evil, we must look for its cause in the scandal of birth, for to be born is to be attached. Detachment then should apply itself to getting rid of the traces of this scandal, the most serious and intolerable of all.” Not that the alternative is much prettier: “To claim you are more detached, more alien to everything than anyone, and to be merely a fanatic of indifference!”

Perhaps, of all philosophers, Pascal most deserves this title of a “fanatic of indifference.” And yet, however grace-stingy Pascal’s Jansenist God may be—for that matter, however morbid Pascal’s reflections seem—Cioran nonetheless reads Pascal as a Christian ­optimist: a proclaimer of grace and a believer that life ultimately triumphs over death, as meaning triumphs over senselessness and good triumphs over evil.

The difference between Pascal and Cioran cannot be reduced to a question of rhetoric, outbidding each other on whose thought allows the greater suffering and thereby shows more clearly the core of existence. Cioran remains Pascal’s greatest reader, and he strives throughout his work to account for Pascal—in a way that is possible only for someone whose sensibility is fundamentally religious, despite his antireligious demeanor. Cioran’s quarrel with Christianity is not that it is false but that it attempts to cancel the fear of death by the “abstract construct” of salvation.

Still, he admired Christian religion for at least recognizing the abyss. Much worse is philosophy, which is, he wrote, “the art of masking inner torment.” Death is particular to each of us, and the philosophers are wrong when they think that anyone can teach someone else how to die. “The irrevocability of agony is experienced by each individual alone, through infinite and intense suffering . . . . Only such moments of agony bring about important existential revelations in consciousness . . . . Most people are unaware of the slow agony within themselves . . . . Since agony unfolds in time, temporality is a condition not only of creativity but also for death.” Even if all philosophical questions were answered, we would still experience anxiety: “Nobody in despair suffers from ‘problems,’ but from his inner torment and fire.”

In The Trouble with Being Born, Cioran writes, “If I bump into my birth, into my obsession, it is because I cannot grapple with the first moment of time.” Perhaps this accounts for his lifelong interest in the Christian mystics who, in the ecstatic state, are taken out of time: merged in the timeless vision of God, where there is no past or present or future. He developed the thought in “Dealing with Mystics,” an essay in his 1956 The Temptation to Exist, where, curiously, he declares that mystical experience is not false.

His quarrel with the mystics is not that they lie but that they see death as an obstacle to be overcome. He quotes St. Teresa of Avila, who argued that the soul, aspiring only to its creator, nonetheless “sees at the same time that it is impossible to possess its creator if it does not die; and since it is impossible for the soul to put itself to death, it dies of the desire to die, until it is actually in the danger of death.” Cioran replies: “Always this need to make death into an accident or a means to reduce it to disappearance instead of regarding it as a presence—always this need to dispossess death. And if religions have made of it only a pretext or a scarecrow—a weapon of propaganda—it is the duty of the unbelievers to see that justice is done, to reestablish death and to restore all its rights.”

Here is the half-Augustinianism in which Cioran often dwelt. However un-Christian and areligious he sounds, his sensibility is religious through and through. In The Temptation to Exist he speaks of being “emotionally” attached to Christianity and insists that his history is the history of Christianity. It makes sense, I suppose. Who among unbelievers can discern just how deep the darkness goes? His call to unbelievers is a voice crying in the wilderness.

Consider this aphorism from The Trouble with Being Born: “Though we may prefer ourselves to the universe, we nonetheless loathe ourselves more than we suspect.” In phrasing, it belongs more in the mocking line of La Rochefoucauld than in the desperate line of Pascal, but the aphorism continues with the full awareness of self-hatred and the Pascalian worldview: “If the wise man is so rare a phenomenon, it is because he seems unshaken by the aversion which, like all beings, he must feel for himself.” Of course, Pascal’s man can feel an aversion to himself because of his corrupt nature: The existence of the divine provides a measure. But how is it possible for Cioran’s man to have a similar feeling?

The caustic cynicism of La Rochefoucauld provided the answer: All our problems are nonproblems, and our pursuit of social distinction and comfort is ridiculous in comparison even with itself. “I know that my birth is fortuitous, a laughable accident,” Cioran observes, “and yet as soon as I forget myself, I behave as if it were a capital event, indispensable to the progress and equilibrium of the world.” The French existentialists did not listen to Cioran for the simple reason that his work cannot lead to the social or political programs that they all eventually came to desire. Cioran’s thought is a philosophy of nonparticipation, of non-ambition. In the end, “we are all humbugs: The problem is how to survive.”

The brilliance of the prose is what makes all this readable—what makes it bearable, even, and thus, in a sense, runs cross-grained against its author’s own themes. There’s no doubt that Cioran could write. His similes and metaphors are always striking and oddly perfect. The Hungarian language, he once observed, is both beautiful and monstrous, like “words of nectar and cyanide.” The Balkans, he noted, have a simultaneous taste for clutter and devastation, “for a universe like a brothel on fire.”

Nietzsche is often cited as the source for Cioran’s philosophical thought and aphoristic method, although, as a grown-up pessimist and writer of aphorisms, Cioran would note, “thanks to the maturity of our cynicism, we have ventured further than he.” Curiously, his final word on Nietzsche, in the late collection Drawn and Quartered, is a criticism of the rhythms of the German’s prose: “a panting excess in the writing, the absence of rests.”

That may point to the deepest stylistic influences on Cioran: not Nietzsche, but the French aphorists. Take this line: “Vices wait for us in the course of life as hosts with whom one has to be housed in succession; and I doubt that experience would make us avoid them if we were permitted to follow the same road twice.”

And compare it to this: “It is easier to get on with vices than with virtues. The vices, accommodating by nature, help each other, are full of mutual indulgence, whereas the jealous virtues combat and annihilate each other, showing in everything their incompatibility and their intolerance.”

The first is from La Rochefoucauld, and the second from Cioran, but one would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Cioran is the best forger La Rochefoucauld ever had. And yet, there remains an enormous gap between Cioran and his French masters. Cioran may have insisted on cynicism, but the polished libertine La Rochefoucauld was, in fact, the true demon of cynicism: saturnine, satanic, and sleek. In comparison, Emil Cioran seems more like a saint: an idealist of despair, an innocent of cynicism.

La Rochefoucauld wanted to be clever, while Cioran wanted to be wise—and “wanting to be wise” is what the word philosophy means, even if, to undertake it, Cioran had to attack the idea of philosophy itself: “What a pity that ‘nothingness’ has been devalued by an abuse of it made by philosophers unworthy of it!”

Dozens of marvelous lines appear in his writing:

  • “Anyone can escape into sleep, we are all geniuses when we dream, the butcher is the poet’s equal there.”
  • “Great persecutors are recruited among martyrs whose heads haven’t been cut off.”
  • “My mission is to kill time, and time’s to kill me in its turn. How comfortable one is among murderers.”
  • “True moral elegance consists in the art of disguising one’s victories as defeats.”

And yet, even taken all together—even assembled as a grand denial of grand systems—they do not add up to enough. They are not all for which the wanting of wisdom hungers, and a limit exists here, somewhere: a place beyond which the aphoristic method cannot go, a human reality it cannot express. In the end, as Cioran himself admitted, aphorism is a “fire without flames. Understandable that no one tries to warm himself at it.”

Still, the bastard poetry of aphorism, its weird, compressed magic, remains a necessary corrective. Philosophy must have this kind of thing, if only to understand why philosophy itself is important. “I seem to myself, among civilized men, an intruder,” Cioran once wrote of his life, “a troglodyte enamored of decrepitude, plunged into subversive prayers.”

And so he was. But until we recognize the darkness, we cannot see the light; philosophy’s candle matters only if we realize that genuine shadows lurk beyond reason’s small illuminated circle. “There is no limit to suffering,” E.M. Cioran insists we remember, and so he posted himself like a sentry on the edge of reason, refusing to turn away from the night.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.