The Fall into Time
by E.M. Cioran, translated by Richard Howard, with an Introduction by Charles Newman
Quadrangle, 224 pp., $5.95
The Fall into Time can and, I think, should be read simultaneously in at least two ways, perhaps more. It can be read seriously as a sermon by a latter-day Jeremiah (it is not an accident, surely, that M. Cioran is the son of a Greek Orthodox priest) about The Fall of Man, a passionate denunciation of the mess he has made of his life, a condition which, the preacher says, is better accounted for by theology than by biology.
In listening to such a sermon, one naturally expects some exaggeration; if we are to be roused from our sloth and flattering illusions, the picture must be painted as black as possible. Man, says this preacher, is “an episode, a digression, a heresy, a kill-joy, a wastrel, a miscreant who has complicated everything.” Consciousness is an evil, “the quintessence of decrepitude.” Knowledge is an evil: “The more we yield to the desire to know, stamped as it is with perversity and corruption, the more incapable we become of remaining inside some reality, any reality.” Language is an evil: “[Man] will never approach life’s inviolate sources if he still has dealings with words.”
The preacher, however, is in the anomalous position, of which M. Cioran, I’m sure, is well aware, of being unable to practice what he preaches. To denounce consciousness, he must appeal to the conscious minds of his audience; to denounce knowledge is to claim that he knows it is evil; to denounce language he has to use words. Chesterton wrote: “If it is not true that a divine being fell, then one can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.” To understand Man, that is, individual men must share his madness. So M. Cioran says of one of his forerunners, Nietzsche: “We owe the diagnosis of our disease to a lunatic, more contaminated and scarred than any of us, to an avowed maniac, precursor and model of our own delirium.”
M. Cioran, himself, however, is certainly sane by ordinary standards. Only now and again does he say something which, to me, seems crazy. I do not believe that he is a Manichaean, but occasionally he makes remarks which make him sound like one, as when he suggests that God fell when He created the Universe, or when he declares: “No one recovers from the disease of being born, a deadly wound if ever there was one.” Then he says that, while everybody’s secret wish is to be praised, which is true, we are all ashamed to admit it, which is, surely, false, though, of course, we want to be praised for the right reasons. Then, coming from a writer, I find this observation very odd.
What writer enjoying a certain fame does not ultimately suffer from it, enduring the discomfort of becoming known and understood, of having a public, however limited it may be? Envious of his friends who loll in the comforts of obscurity, he will do his best …