“What attracts me is elsewhere, and I don’t know where that elsewhere is.”
― Emil Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born
The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran is not the kind of philosopher you’ll find quoted on the back of a Hulletts sugar packet. You won’t find his words in the company of the saccharine motivational quotes in this year’s diary. He is ascerbic and nasty, irascible and deliberately obtuse. And yet something about his writing disturbs, arrests one: William H. Gass called Cioran’s work “a philosophical romance on the modern themes of alienation, absurdity, boredom, futility, decay, the tyranny of history, the vulgarities of change, awareness as agony, reason as disease” (Wikipedia). What is one to make of this controversial, disillusioned nihilist?
Susan Sontag (perhaps unsurprisingly) extols him in the preface to the aforementioned book; Roger Kimball in The New Criterion (https://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-anguishes-of-E-M–Cioran-5980) is less enthusiastic, seeing through Cioran’s histrionics to an “adolescent”, “pathetic … connoisseur of inconsistency”.
But these are the views of academics familiar with this terrain; I understand little of their critiques (with my tatty, phrasebook philosophical knowledge) and I admit I find Cioran something of an enigma. There’s an odd smell in the room and I want to find it’s source – especially when everyone is telling you the room smells of roses. So in a second-hand bookshop years ago, I found myself picking up a copy of “The Temptation to Exist” – intrigued by the odd title and the strange aphorisms it contained. Perhaps I am attracted to the author’s iconoclastic refusal to accept easy or trite answers. He is an enemy of the sacred: but it can be helpful to watch him assail the persistant myths which form the superstructure of our society. It can be illuminating to observe ourselves from the “heights of despair”, if only to re-evaluate our own commitments; but one is quickly sullied by his flippant dismissal of others’ agonies, his casual praise for dictators, his diabolical mischief. He offers us nothing but his viciousness: mocking us for sheltering beneath a roof of frail twigs, he drives us into the cold and rain and then despises us for our wretchedness. His self hatred is projected onto us: we are all complicit in futility.
His writing is disquieting; he rejects received wisdom, refuses amelioration, seeks no savior, salvific faith or ideology. He strays across unmarked borders of decency: is he praising totalitarianism? Is he an anti-Semite? In the darkness he himself creates like a diabolical conjurer, he’s hard to pin down. Is he attacking us, or himself? Is he burning me on the pyre of his accusation or is this a spectacle of self-immolation? Philosophical anarchism yes – but perhaps perversely this “prophet of the void” sees what all decent folk cannot – or will not – acknowledge. I respect his violent rejection of the cosy lie (to borrow a phrase from Sontag) – and the cosy lie is the very stuff we breathe in the capitalist, consumerist West (or East for that matter). it is our milieu:
“One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.” Walter Benjamin.
“Cioran remains one of the most difficult modern writers to come to terms with. With an aphoristic, charged, almost violent style, and a portfolio of subjects well outside our contemporary philosophical mainstream – despair, ecstasy, boredom, insanity, suicide, crime, illness, nothingness, music, sex, entropy, all considered as raw and immediate experiences, not as matters for academic investigation – he can seem like an atavist, a soul in permanent unarmed combat with the mores of enlightened society. “Annihilating,” he wrote in The Trouble with Being Born, “flatters something obscure, something original in us. It is not by erecting but by pulverising that we may divine the secret satisfactions of a god. Whence the lure of destruction and the illusions it provokes among the frenzied of any era.”
There is are interesting reviews of Cioran’s “The Trouble with Being Born” at
one reviewer writes,
“Cioran writes absolutely beautiful prose .. I really cannot adequately convey the beauty of some of the existential musings of Cioran properly. He’s a great stylist.”
“this book is not really philosophy in the Western Sense. It’s written more like Eastern Philosophy. It’s entirely aphorisms. That said, if you can bear with it, this is one of the best things I’ve ever read. The clarity of thought and sheer brilliance of the aphorisms are unmatched apart from Lao Tzu and McLuhan.
Cioran is grimly pessimistic and has an extremely mordant sense of humor. He also explores the human condition and the recalcitrant nature of existence and art. If Nietzsche had a sense of humor and lived amidst French existentialism, he’d have written this book. Cioran is a bit more of an irrationalist (and a Buddhist …. and a Christian) than Nietzsche, though (and a bit less of an anti-egalitarian). To put it in other terms, Cioran has a sense of (self-consciously absurd) pessimistic humor that is roughly in line with the modern goth subculture. If you spent your formative years listening to the Sisters of Mercy, you’ll know what I mean.
By all means, not a book for everyone but highly recommended for recovering goths, literary types, artists, existentialists, and theology and philosophy types with a sense of humor, or students studying 20th century Pessimism.”
Another reviewer writes,
“I really wanted to love this book after it was so highly praised. It’s funny, witty, depressive, and brilliant. At the same time it’s melodramatic, repetitive, boring, and short sighted.”