images[University of Chicago Press, 2013]

Is Emil Cioran an author to be feared? Is his writing dangerous in some way that should, for example, prevent me from including his aphorisms at the end of group emails? Is this kind of question ridiculous to even ask nowadays, when the more appropriate question would be whether it is possible to take Cioran, or any writer for that matter, seriously enough to feel his threat? I would have thought not, had a classmate not raised this very issue when I suggested that we read The New Gods in our reading group. What about Cioran’s early admiration of Hitler, they objected? And his enthusiasm for the Iron Guard, a fascist political movement from Cioran’s native Romania? This is not to reduce writers to their politics or biographies, they assured the group with the obligatory reference to Heidegger, but just to raise a note of caution to make sure that we knew what we would be getting into.

In the case of Cioran the question of biography is either distracting or illuminating, depending on which way we take it. To begin with distraction, namely the political side, it is not the most earth shattering insight to observe that among the big ideologies of the 20th century, the one most shot through with contradictions was the anti-Semetic strain of fascism. Take, for example, Celine, the virulent anti-Semite, writing to a former lover, a Jew, on the news that her husband was killed in Dachau:

Dear Cillie,

What awful news! At least you’re far away, on the other side of the world. Were you able to take a little money with you? Obviously, you’re going to start a new life over there. How will you work? Where will Europe be by the time you receive this letter?

We’re living over a volcano.

On my side, my little dramas are nothing compared to yours (for the moment), but tragedy looms nonetheless . . .

Because of my anti-Semitic stance I’ve lost all my jobs (Clichy, etc.) and I’m going to court on March 8. You see, Jews can persecute too.

Cioran’s writing is undergirded by this same political and moral inconsistency (“volcanic” or ironically funny, depending on the topic). The moments that might make the reader cringe are momentary, not foundational, and certainly not prescriptive in the full-blown sense. And, moreover, the content of these accusations are up for debate. For his ideal political regime Cioran names “a Left without rigid dogmas, a Left exempt from fanaticism.” On the Jews, “there is an extraordinary Jewish optimism. The Jews are the only tragic people that remain optimists.”

But, turning to the illuminating function of biography, Cioran suffered from bouts of insomnia. “They began in my youth,” he said in an interview, “when I was about nineteen. It wasn’t simply a medical problem, it was deeper, in fact the fundamental and most serious experience of my life. All the rest is secondary. Those sleepless nights opened my eyes, everything changed for me because of them.” Indeed, for Cioran there might be something to fear from the consciousness born of insomnia. A fragment from the “Strangled Thoughts” section of The New Gods reads, “Insomnia’s role in history, from Caligula to Hitler. Is the impossibility of sleeping the cause or the consequence of cruelty? The tyrant lies awake — that is what defines him.” Cioran will often frame his thinking in terms of duration, frequency, and intensity, and for the author of The Trouble with Being Born you can imagine the cruel thoughts that would issue from the heightened consciousness of a string of sleepless nights.

The New Gods is the most recent of Cioran’s books to be reprinted by the University of Chicago Press, beautifully translated from the original French by the poet Richard Howard (the others are On the Heights of Despair and Tears and Saints). It consists of a diverse set of essays and aphorisms, but many of Cioran’s cherished themes run throughout the book. The opening essays, “The Demiurge” and “The New Gods,” could be called pieces of speculative theology. The first recounts the alternative creation story put forth by the Gnostics, namely that the creator of the material world followed a logic of evil and imperfection. The second is a genealogy of religious fanaticism and has us linger on the pivotal moment when Christianity violently detaches itself from and subsequently suppresses pagan religions. Contra Tertullian, “the soul is naturally pagan,” Cioran writes in a Nietzschean mode, invoking the echo of our natural dispersal of energies in a polytheistic cosmology. Christianity once had the vitality to fight this battle, but has for quite some time now settled into the worst form of religious mediocrity. Lest these reflections remain on a level of abstraction, or needlessly luxuriate in the most pessimistic consequences to be drawn from human history, he brings us right into the secular present:

In an age when, lacking religious conflicts, we witness ideological ones, the question raised for us is indeed the one which haunted waning antiquity: how to renounce so many gods for just one? — with this corrective, nonetheless, that the sacrifice demanded of us is located on a lower level, no longer that of gods but that of opinions. As soon as a divinity, or a doctrine, claims supremacy, freedom is threatened. If we see a supreme value in toleration, then everything which does it violence is to be considered a crime . . .

As interesting as these initial essays are, Cioran is at his best in the form of the aphorism. “The aphorism,” he has said, “is scorned by ‘serious’ people, and the professors look down upon it. . . . I can put two aphorisms that are contradictory right next to each other. Aphorisms are also momentary truths. They’re not decrees. And I could tell you in nearly every case why I wrote this or that phrase, and when. They’re always set in motion by an encounter, an incident, a fit of temper, but they all have a cause. They’re not at all gratuitous.”  Some readers might challenge this final point, as there is surely some gratuity in the “Encounters with Suicide” and “Strangled Thoughts” sections. (To take a representative example from each: “You haven’t seen to the bottom of a thing if you haven’t considered it in the light of prostration.” “Chatter: any conversation with someone who has not suffered.”) But the overall effect of Cioran’s prose is to trouble and unsettle the dogmas that so often collapse our writing and thinking into paeans to banality: that more democracy is transparently good, that childhood is a reserve of innocence and goodness (Cioran quotes Calvin here, for whom children are “little lumps of filth”), or that we can definitively prove the superiority of interest over indifference.

In this regard Cioran is to be feared as much as Pascal, Montaigne, or other great French skeptics were to be feared in their times. There is a discomfort in submitting yourself to a form of radical self-scrutiny, and then taking the further step of submitting the results to others. But, to return to the worries of my classmate, there is also a great deal of poetic work that such a move accomplishes. “The desolation expressed by a gorilla’s eyes. A funeral mammal. I am descended from that gaze.” “When we meditate upon vacuity, impermanence, nirvana, crouching or lying down is the best position. It is the one in which these themes were conceived. It is only in the West that man thinks standing up. Which accounts perhaps for the unfortunately positive character of our philosophy.” “My rages lack breeding: They are too plebeian, too earthly, to be able to emancipate themselves from a cause.”

As should be clear by this point, given that I’ve had to fight the urge to hand the language of this review completely over to Cioran, I am among those who cherish this form of writing for maintaining the link between philosophy, literature, religion, and culture that the professionalization and specialization of each of these domains works so hard to sever. “I’ve never practiced a profession and have lived like a sort of student,” Cioran has said. “I consider this my greatest success, my life hasn’t been a failure because I succeeded in doing nothing.” In light of our contemporary fear of freedom it is hard to disagree with the reasonableness of Cioran’s self-accounting on this point.