The decision to mark the centenary of the Romanian essayist Emil Cioran in 2011 – also the centenary of Gallimard itself – by including a volume of his writings in French in the Pléiade collection is particularly significant. Doing so in effect presents him as one of the great French writers of his day. This edition, meticulously and eruditely edited by Nicolas Cavaillès with the help of Aurélien Demars, posits that the ten books Cioran wrote in French form a body of work with its own “natural and powerful unity”, separate – and separable – from his previous writings in Romanian. Written after their author settled definitively in France (he never returned to Romania after 1941), they mark a radical shift that goes beyond the obvious differences in language, time and space. With Précis de décomposition (A Short History of Decay, 1949), the work which won him immediate recognition from the Parisian intelligentsia, Cioran pushed his bleak nihilism to new “heights of despair” (the title of his first Romanian work fifteen years earlier). One can well understand why this book had such resonance just after the war, with its passionate, forensic, often lyrical reflections on the origins of fanaticism. For Cioran, the root of all “ideologies, doctrines and bloody farces” is the life force itself, the vital instinct which leads people to believe passionately in any one thing rather than another. “Signs of life: cruelty, fanaticism, intolerance; signs of decadence: affability, understanding, indulgence.” Since “all faith exercises a form of terror”, it follows that sceptics are the “true benefactors of humanity”. Yet even sceptics show themselves to be fanatical about scepticism: “man is the supreme dogmatic being”. Life is a senseless tragedy made hideously worse by the human propensity to invest it with meaning, to find some illusion to believe in. The only alternative to the devastation caused by man’s capacity to delude himself lies in utter disillusionment:
I understood the non-sense of every gesture, every effort . . . . I wanted to defend myself against all men, react against their madness, discover its source; I listened and I saw – and I was afraid: afraid of acting for the same reasons or for any reason, of believing in the same phantoms or in any other phantom, of letting myself be intoxicated in the same way or in any other way; afraid, finally, of sharing a common delirium and expiring in a crowd of ecstasies . . . . It is troubling to think that . . . all sink into lying because they do not suspect the equivalence, in nullity, of pleasures and of truths.
This desolate pessimism explains why Samuel Beckett is the contemporary most often associated with Cioran. Although they did not meet until 1961, Beckett was the writer for whom Cioran felt the deepest affinity. The section devoted to him is one of the few unequivocally admiring pieces in Exercices d’admiration (1986), a set of meditations on figures as diverse as Joseph de Maistre, Paul Valéry and Scott Fitzgerald. In many respects, Beckett’s and Cioran’s views of the world are strikingly similar. “If each word wins us a victory over nothingness, it is only to subject us further to its power”; “existing has only one meaning: immersion in suffering”; “Sick with hope, we always wait; and life is only waiting become hypostasis”; “the interval separating me from my corpse is a wound”; “How to recover from being born?” – the Irishman could conceivably have signed all these quotations.
The trajectories of the two authors are also surprisingly comparable. Both began to write in French at the same time, having already published a considerable amount in their respective native languages. Both described the shift to a foreign language in astonishingly similar terms, as at once a turn to the greater “clarity” offered by French and an attempt to escape the “lyricism” (Cioran) or “style” (Beckett) impossible to avoid in their mother tongues. The first works of both in French met with considerably greater success than their earlier writings. The extent to which that success was related to their linguistic exile is too vast a question to be explored here in any depth. But it was probably no mere coincidence that these two writers who struck such a powerful chord in the aftermath of the war did so through a foreign language. In both cases, linguistic exile echoed the expression of a more general, ontological, condition of alienation.
The sense of self-estrangement conveyed in Cioran’s work nevertheless differs from that of Beckett in certain key respects relevant to this edition’s decision to treat the works in French as separate from the earlier writings. The epigraph from Richard III placed at the beginning of A Short History – “I’ll join with black despair against my soul, / And to myself become an enemy” – sums up Cioran’s view of the human condition as one in which man is profoundly, irremediably at odds with himself. But it also serves to signal that the new, “French” Cioran it introduces is an enemy of the old. In effect, Cioran’s fervent denunciation of fervour bears reading as a denunciation of his past self, in particular his pre-war support for the Iron Guard, the Romanian fascist, anti-Semitic organization. Beckett, with his very different experience in the Resistance, was subject to no such radical discontinuity between his wartime and post-war selves.
In his correspondence, Cioran refers to the period of his early political beliefs, most clearly expounded in The Transfiguration of Romania (1936), as a “prehistory” he could neither disown nor regret. His life from 1941 onwards leaves no doubt that he left those beliefs behind him; in particular, his efforts to save the Jewish-Romanian poet Benjamin Fondane from deportation to Auschwitz and his friendship in the 1950s with Paul Celan show how his views had changed. His post-war retreat from the world is an indication that he may have been his own harshest judge (he lived out his years in a tiny garret with his companion, Simone Boué, and declined the many honours and prizes he won after A Short History was awarded the Rivarol Prize in 1949). The constant attraction of suicide in the later works and the notes of self-horror which sporadically punctuate them suggest that he suffered from the turmoil of realizing the implications of his earlier positions as intensely as one might expect of an acute, highly rarefied intelligence. Yet there is singularly little acknowledgement in his published writing of the distance he had taken from his previous views. The section “A people of loners” in La Tentation d’exister (The Temptation To Exist, 1956) was as close as he came to a formal recantation of his earlier anti-Semitic views. Yet even there any autobiographical dimension is lacking. When he says “I”, as in the long quotation above, it situates him as a defender of humanity. His “I” never explores the part he may have played in attacking it.
This is neither to judge the person nor, especially, to dismiss the work which, as Cioran himself repeatedly emphasized, is ultimately what matters in any discussion of a writer. Cioran’s work is indubitably important. His insights into the depths to which humanity could descend remain as compelling today as when they were first published. Moreover, his reflections on language in general, and on poetry in particular, were far in advance of their time. He conceived of poetry as a (futile) expression of futility and, as such, the only non-destructive practice of language possible, because it never “served” a purpose, had no aspiration to tell a truth. This is also what makes him such an effective stylist. It is because he claims no illusions about the value of any meaning that he brooks no constraint other than those of language itself on his attempts to craft words into new forms. His intuition of a “radical disjunction between reality and the Verb” explains the interest his work would hold for thinkers such as Jacques Derrida decades later. But he draws very different conclusions about that disjunction from those Derrida would draw:
That a reality is hidden behind appearances is, after all, possible; that language could render it would be a ridiculous thing to hope. Why then weigh oneself down with one opinion rather than another, why retreat before the banal or the inconceivable, before the duty to say or to write any old thing?
It does not follow from the fact that language fails to describe reality that all attempts to do so fail equally. Similarly, the fact that any idea can be twisted and appropriated to shameful ends does not mean that all ideas are “neutral”, as the opening line of A Short History asserts, or “interchangeable”. Similarly too, it is one thing to recognize that it is “within the reach of all of us to take another’s life. We all carry a silent executioner, an unrealized criminal, within us”. It is quite another to conclude from the capacity for evil that forms an intrinsic part of the human condition that all are equally infamous.
For Cioran, his post-war nihilism represented an advance on what preceded it. For others, the moral equivalence it led him to establish between all ideas, all beliefs, all opinions may not constitute so complete a rupture between his Romanian prehistory and his corpus of French work as he liked to believe. Whether or not that makes him less of a French writer may be an unanswerable question. But he is certainly an interesting one. And as such it is good to see him among the stars.
Mairéad Hanrahan is Professor of French at University College London.