Insomnia’s Philosopher

Searching for Cioran

by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, edited by Kenneth R. Johnston, with a foreword by Matei Calinescu
Indiana University Press, 284 pp., $27.95

On the Heights of Despair

by E.M. Cioran, translated from the Romanian and with an introduction by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston
University of Chicago Press, 128 pp., $29.00; $17.00 (paper)

Tears and Saints

by E.M. Cioran, translated from the Romanian and with an introduction by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston
University of Chicago Press, 128 pp., $25.00; $17.50 (paper)
Dominique Nabokov
E.M. Cioran, Paris, 1982

Who reads E.M. Cioran nowadays? Someone must, since most of his books have been translated and are in print. At universities where graduate students and professors are familiar with every recent French philosopher and literary theorist, he’s practically unknown, though he was a much finer thinker and wrote far better prose than a whole lot of them. Much of the neglect of Cioran is unquestionably due to his uncompromisingly dark vision of the human condition; his denunciations of both Christianity and philosophy read at times like the ravings of a madman. To make it even more confusing, he had two lives and two identities: the Romanian Cioran of the 1930s who wrote in Romanian and the later, better-known French Cioran who wrote in French. Since his death in 1995, the sensational revelations about his youthful sympathies for Hitler and his involvement with the Iron Guard, the Romanian pro-fascist, nationalist, and anti-Semitic movement in the 1930s, have also contributed to his marginalization. And yet following the publication in 1949 of the first book he wrote in French, he was hailed in France as a stylist and thinker worthy of comparison to great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century moralists like La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Chamfort, and Vauvenargues.

This is what makes Searching for Cioran by the late Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, who didn’t live to finish her book, so valuable. It tells the story of his Romanian years and gives a fine account of the personal and political circumstances in which both his philosophical ideas and his brand of nationalism were formed. In later years, Cioran spoke rarely of that shameful period in his life and never—except to allude vaguely to his “youthful follies”—talked openly of his one political tract, Romania’s Transfiguration (1936), a short, demented book in which he prescribed how his native country could overcome its second-rate historical status through radical, totalitarian methods. Along with Mircea Eliade, the philosopher and historian of religion, the playwright Eugène Ionesco, and many others, equally eminent but less known abroad, he was a member of Romania’s “Young Generation,” the “angry young men” responsible for both a cultural renaissance and apocalyptic nationalism in the 1930s. To understand what led Cioran to leave Romania and become disillusioned with ideas he espoused in his youth, it’s best to start at the beginning.

Emil Cioran was born in 1911, the second of three children, in the remote mountain village of Ra˘s¸inari near the city of Sibiu in southern Transylvania, which at that time was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Emilian, was a Romanian Orthodox priest who came from a long line of priests, as did his mother, Elvira. He loved his native landscape with its streams, hills, and woods where he ran free with other kids, even telling one interviewer, “I don’t know of anyone with a happier childhood than mine.”

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