E. M. Cioran
E. M. Cioran; drawing by David Levine

The neck, Plato tells us in the Timaeus, was fashioned by the Demiurge as a kind of isthmus between the head, which houses the higher soul, and the damper, softer regions given to the appetites and passions. This was done in order to protect the mind from their pollutions. Since then we have had nothing but complaints about the arrangement. That sovereign light, we hear, is a sly beguiler, a false leader, creator of gods and myths, an envious organ of denial, and a professional instrument of deceit. Long have the liver and the lungs, the bowels, heart and privy members, languished out of sight in the ghettos of the body—becoming more resentful, more impoverished, more maligned, and more embittered every age.

A revolution is finally underway: not one merely which will deliver single bodies to them, some minuscule psychologies (that’s happened often enough), or even one which will turn over to these vital but barbaric powers an entire State (that’s also occurred occasionally), but one which will catch the whole declining West in its paws, and incidentally demonstrate the parallel which Plato drew between the condition of the soul and the corresponding health of society. Now, everywhere, in the name of Priapic Power, there is a rising against that absent landlord, Monsieur Teste, and his chief work, our civilization. “Whenever I pronounce the word civilization,” Gauguin cried, “I spit.” And M. Cioran writes: “…everything is virtue that leads us to live against the stream of our civilization, that invites us to compromise and sabotage its progress….”1

Yet cliché…and Cioran is, like Pope, a polisher of commonplaces, a recutter of old stones, though he would disapprove of any comparison with so classical a poet…cliché informs us (doesn’t cliché tell us everything we know?) that every revolution is betrayed from the beginning—the ground of its spring is always spongy—and we have good reason to be sorry for this one—good reason. For what ruler has pleaded for his overthrow with greater eloquence and poetry, provided better demonstrations of his own unfitness, or supplied deadlier weapons to his enemies; who has spoken with more bitter poignancy of the ruler’s isolation, the burdens of such office and the emptiness of its outward show, protesting “what have kings, that privates have not too, save ceremony,” and exclaiming against all deeper differences, “if pricked, do I not bleed?”; who has represented more honestly the claims of the viscera to rule, then, than the mind, weary philosopher and king of the necktie tower, who now divides his realm to rally opposition and lead it, howling, against the head? But why? why, except to restore the intellect to greater health, serener power?

The guts give the mind its strength; certainly the isthmus must be crossed, and ditched up after; but we should not, out of bad conscience, as Nietzsche warns us, Oedipus our eyes out, trade scepter for staff, or kingship for a beggar’s tatters. The mind is the only claw a man has. Cioran, least of all, wants men harmless; he admires, them when they’re most wild…barbaric…mad. “Reason: the rust of our vitality,” he writes, using a plumber’s phrase. And were the Vandals thoughtless? were the Medici? Or was their reasoning new and fresh instead, unweary, full of force and optimism; weren’t they led on by what they thought they could become, so that they drove themselves like warrior into change?

CHANGE, however, is a curse. Concentrating on it deprives us of the present; we become a slave of time. “Doing is tainted with an original sin from which Being seems exempt.”2 The beggar, on the other hand, by cultivating his impoverishment, gains his freedom. “He has nothing, he is himself, he endures: to live on a footing with eternity is to live from day to day….” Like Yeats’s old men and his mendicants, like Shakespeare’s fools, these beggars are purely imaginary. The mystic, too, seeks Being, but through ecstasy, “the wreck of consciousness.” With the magisterial myth of final nothingness, they lift themselves out of ordinary fictions. Fiction for fictions? Knowing this, we cannot follow them. Mystic, beggar, and barbarian: all tempt him, but only temporarily. Like a ball which can’t escape its court, Cioran is volleyed from one racket onto the unyielding strings of another, his thought continuously describing the hopeless parabolas of paradox. Zeno’s arrow, we all remember, either occupies successively each place in its path, thus is stationary there, and its movement, made of an infinity of stills, is mere illusion; or else it does not pass the points at all, is never anywhere, and its movement, as it’s fallen altogether out of space, is, once again, a mere illusion.

Each of Cioran’s essays adopts the tone of the dilemma, even if none has Zeno’s unflinching elegance of form, for Zeno was rapacious, the Attila of logic, and wished to win; he strove always for conclusions. Conclusions? Cioran seems to say, they are only vanities, and he repudiates them all…but again, not absolutely. Although he seems to have taken his aphoristic style from Nietzsche, as well as many of his ideas, he is never as wild or bold or positive as Nietzsche was. His work drones with disillusion. His complaints about the intellect, his stress on instinct, his references to time, remind one of similar attitudes in Schopenhauer and Bergson, as well as some of the moods of the existentialists; nor can one escape the feeling that he’s been kissed, immoderately, by Spengler. However, principally he is a Platonist unsure of which horse he should allow to lead, and regrets sometimes that the dark horse of desire has been tamed. Being, Non-Being, and Becoming: these ghosts haunt him, as do those ancient Greek divisions of the soul. His essays are exemplifications of the disease he says we suffer from: superbly written, economical, concerned with the very foundations of thought and being, they are nevertheless extraordinarily careless pieces of reasoning, travel from fallacy to fallacy with sovereign unconcern, deal almost wholly with borrowings, and spider down from dubious premises thick threads of purely historical associations. So evenly is Cioran divided against himself, on irony’s behalf, that there is scarcely a line which does not contain truth by precisely a half. Yet it is the conditions these pieces reveal which justifies their claim (strong, though implicit), to picture our contemporary mind. What one essay says of Meister Eckhart perfectly applies to Cioran himself:


Even in the Middle Ages, certain minds, tired of sifting the same themes, the same expressions, were obliged, in order to renew their piety and to emancipate it from the official terminology, to fall back on paradox, on the alluring, sometimes brutal, sometimes subtle formula…his style, rather than his ideas, gained him the honor of being convicted of heresy…. Like every heretic, he sinned on the side of form. An enemy of language, all orthodoxy, whether religious or political, postulates the usual expression.

Thus, as Susan Sontag points out in her exemplary Introduction, there is nothing fresh about Cioran’s thought…except its formal fury. His book has all the beauty of pressed leaves, petals shut from their odors; yet what is retained has its own emotion, and here it is powerful and sustained. The Temptation to Exist is a philosophical romance on modern themes: alienation, absurdity, boredom, futility, decay, the tyranny of history, the vulgarities of change, awareness as agony, reason as disease.

E. M. CIORAN is, in every way, an alien; he has no home, even in his own heart. Born in Roumania, that nebbish among nations, he was exiled from it before he left, though now he bitterly pretends to have come to terms with its history of failure and its Balkan sense of fatality: “…would I have been able, without my country, to waste my days in so exemplary a manner?” Living in Paris since 1937, he has abandoned his native language (alien, now, to that too), and composes his tight little essays in French; essays which he has no home in either, for he distrusts even his occupation (“To write books3 is to have a certain relation with original sin.”), since a concern with the Word withdraws us from the World—we vanish inside our syllables. “At least,” he addresses a prospective author, “I have the excuse of hating my actions, of performing them without believing in them,” and although he loathes his own self-loathing, he often regards this emotion as the only way to redemption. Are we to take all these repudiations seriously? Not a bit. Just a little. Yes and no. Truths he utters ironically to expose the falsehood in them, while falsehoods receive the same treatment, so what soundness they have will shine through. He seems really to think that if he writes his lies like lies, that will excuse them, but what he risks by this tactic is revealing an essentially frivolous mind. At his worst he appears a world-weary wit out of Oscar Wilde, no more: “Self-doubt worked on human beings to such a point that they invented love as a remedy, a tacit pact between two unfortunates to overestimate and praise each other shamelessly.”4 Consciousness, itself, he’s quite alone in. Thought, as well—his sole addiction—takes him even further from the sources of vitality, and ruthlessly discloses its own futility—so much so that he says, “our strength can be measured by the sum of beliefs we abjure,” and “each of us should wind up his career a deserter of all possible causes.”5


What Cioran would do without his belief in alienation, disease, and decline, is not clear; yet surely these ideas should be abandoned, unless he is willing to qualify them until they lose their usefulness to poetry. Indeed, all his causes are in the same sinking boat. He tells us that the only minds which intrigue us “defend indefensible positions,” and that “the only minds which seduce us are the minds which have destroyed themselves trying to give their lives a meaning” (note how we are dragged by the us out to these extremities); yet there are other minds, other styles, which risk more (one essay is titled “Style as Risk”), those which dare to replace flamboyance with responsibility. If we ask ourselves soberly what such remarks mean, or what amount of truth they contain, musn’t our answer honestly be: very little, and not much?

ALTHOUGH HIS TREATMENT of the doctrine of Destiny is acid, and his feelings about determinism in general more than skeptical, the opposition between reason and instinct, between civilization and vitality, between time and freedom—the whole lot—is presented as inevitable, the decline of the West as inescapable; and he regularly throws his thought, which he properly describes as autobiographical (and which has only a subjective, a psychological, validity), into the first person plural, where it obtains the abstractness and rigidity of a mathematical model. Theories of decline and decay require a belief in Necessity as much as those which naïvely predict Progress; they both lean on history (which Cioran sourly regards as “man’s aggression against himself”), and both depend heavily upon the use of terms (like instinct, intellect, civilization) which facilitate equivocation, and produce in the reader that effortless sense of depth and subtlety which is so rewarding and so inexpensive. Finally, both need eyes which blaze at the oncoming of contrary facts, and dazzle them into the ditch.

Nietzsche, who made so many of the same observations Cioran does, was altogether wiser: the Apollonian and Dionysian principles are only possible enemies; the health he was after required their unity, not their opposition. Cioran suffers from what Nietzsche called

…the greatest and most disastrous of maladies, of which humanity has not to this day been cured: his sickness of himself, brought on by the violent severance from his animal past, by his sudden leap and fall into new layers and conditions of existence, by his declaration of war against the old instincts that had hitherto been the foundation of his power, his joy, and his awesomeness.

Cioran’s diagnosis is the same, but he regards, even a little smugly (a condition, of course, he also recognizes), this disease as incurable; and therefore—some think bravely—perseveres in it, aggravates it, champions it.

We6 no longer remember the trouble we took to walk. It did not come so easily as sprouting for a seed. Now, when we learn to drive a golf ball or a car, some notion of the effort we took returns to us. Our body was our enemy at first, a foreign thing, an uncustomary country. We were forced to tackle the problem in a series of steps, mechanically; commands were issued from the head to the head, to the torso, to the legs, the arms, but they did not immediately obey us, nor were our orders clear. Like a cage of big cats, we frightened our limbs into obedience, into a semblance of order. How arbitrary, too, the aims of the vaulter, how artificial his grip, how unnaturally he must move to scramble up the sky, how out of reach his achievement is for most of us, how against Nature; yet how easily, how thoughtlessly, how beautifully, he finally does it. For at the moment of his mastery, the vaulter and his pole, the bar he is overing, the pit below, the medium he moves through: all of these are extensions of his will. We ought to understand these powers, this expanded condition, for we did learn walking once, and overcome similar handicaps, and now we stroll, or run, or dance, or speak, as simply as we see when we open an eye. The world is there; we need not issue commands to it: let there be horns, hills, houses, intransitive verbs; let there be strolling: left, right, left, right; let there be rhymes. Yet these trained athletes are animals. Where is the severance in them? They are well with regard to their activities. Should thoughtfulness, the moves of the mind, and its relation to its objects, be any different?

To feel at home in our body, to sense the true nostos of it, is to have it move to our will so smoothly we seem will-less altogether. The will of God, Kant thought, might be that holy with respect to the Good. We take walking for granted, elementary seeing for granted, yet we find we cannot feel. Thought seems to remove us; we cannot enjoy life; the mechanics of the car are so demanding, we cannot have the pleasure of the ride. Beckett’s men on their bicycles, or with their cripples’ sticks, point the analogy in the other direction. We have fallen out of our bodies like a child from a tree; bruised, forlorn, we bellow at the foot of it and wish we were back there among the leaves, and wish at the same time never to suffer such risks again.

LOVE is an achievement like the achievement of the vaulter; it’s to rise as expertly and naturally as he does. One fundamental remedy for alienation is mastery—the incorporation of skill. Rightly chosen, such skills liberate desire, empower it; only when, for whatever reason, we no longer bring into our bodies the forms of civilization, are these felt as frustrating obstacles and enemies of want. Civilized dining, to name a lowly instance: in what ways do its rites demean us, and leave our stomachs empty, our natures unfulfilled? As Marcuse writes: “The power to restrain and guide instinctual drives, to make biological necessities into individual needs and desires, increases rather than reduces gratification….” But such considerations have no place in the myth of alienation.

Our minds can grow their own bodies, become body, play a different Demiurge. We can swell with the world we take in. Otherwise we shrink and wrinkle like a prune. In the prune, contracting on its core, I sense small temptation, little reason, to exist.

This Issue

August 22, 1968