The Philosopher of Failure: Emil Cioran’s Heights of Despair
By Costica Bradatan
2062 13 9
NOVEMBER 28, 2016
FOR SOME, he was one of the most subversive thinkers of his time — a 20th-century Nietzsche, only darker and with a better sense of humor. Many, especially in his youth, thought him to be a dangerous lunatic. According to others, however, he was just a charmingly irresponsible young man, who posed no dangers to others — only to himself perhaps. When his book on mysticism went to the printers, the typesetter — a good, God-fearing man — realizing how blasphemous its contents were, refused to touch it; the publisher washed his hands of the matter and the author had to publish the blasphemy elsewhere, at his own expense. Who was this man?
Emil Cioran (1911–1995) was a Romanian-born French philosopher and author of some two dozen books of savage, unsettling beauty. He is an essayist in the best French tradition, and even though French was not his native tongue, many think him among the finest writers in that language. His writing style is whimsical, unsystematic, fragmentary; he is celebrated as one of the great masters of aphorism. But the “fragment” was for Cioran more than a writing style: it was a vocation and a way of life; he called himself “un homme de fragment.”
Cioran often contradicts himself, but that’s the least of his worries. With him, self-contradiction is not even a weakness, but the sign a mind is alive. For writing, he believed, is not about being consistent, nor about persuasion or keeping a readership entertained; writing is not even about literature. For Cioran, just like Montaigne several centuries earlier, writing has a distinctive performative function: you write not to produce some body of text, but to act upon yourself; to bring yourself together after a personal disaster or to pull yourself out of a bad depression; to come to terms with a deadly disease or to mourn the loss of a close friend. You write not to go mad, not to kill yourself or others. In a conversation with Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater, Cioran says at one point: “If I didn’t write, I could have become an assassin.” Writing is a matter of life and death. Human existence, at its core, is endless anguish and despair, and writing can make things a bit more bearable. “A book,” said Cioran, “is a suicide postponed.”
Cioran wrote himself out of death over and over again. He composed his first book, On the Heights of Despair (Pe culmile disperării, 1934), when he was 23 years old, in just a few weeks, while suffering from a terrible bout of insomnia. The book — to remain one of his finest in both Romanian and French — marked the beginning of a strong, intimate link in his life between writing and sleeplessness:
I’ve never been able to write otherwise than in the midst of the depression [cafard] brought about by my nights of insomnia. For seven years I could barely sleep. I need this depression, and even today before I sit down to write I play a disk of [sad] Gypsy music from Hungary.
That Cioran is an unsystematic thinker doesn’t mean that his work lacks unity; on the contrary, it is kept tightly together not only by his unique writing style and manner of thinking, but also by a distinct set of philosophical themes, motifs, and idiosyncrasies. Among them failure figures prominently. Cioran was obsessed with it: the specter of failure haunts his oeuvre starting with his earliest, Romanian book; then, throughout his life, he never strayed away from failure. He studied it from varying angles and at different moments, as true connoisseurs tend to, and looked for it in the most unexpected places. Not only can individuals end up as failures, Cioran believed, but also societies, peoples, and countries. Especially countries. “I was fascinated with Spain,” he said once, “because it offered the example of the most spectacular failure. The greatest country in the world reduced to such a state of decay!”
Failure permeates everything. Great ideas can be stained by failure, and so can books, philosophies, institutions, and political systems. The human condition itself is for Cioran just another failed project: “No longer wanting to be a man,” he writes in The Trouble with Being Born (De l’inconvénient d’être né, 1973), he is “dreaming of another form of failure.” The universe is one big failure, and so is life itself. “Before being a fundamental mistake,” says Cioran, “life is a failure of taste which neither death nor even poetry succeeds in correcting.” Failure rules the world like the whimsical God of the Old Testament. One of Cioran’s aphorisms reads: “‘You were wrong to count on me.’ Who can speak in such terms? God and the Failure.”
Cioran could speak so well of failure because he knew it intimately. Cioran was someone who in his youth got involved in catastrophic political projects (which he regretted all his life), who changed countries and languages and had to start everything from scratch, who was a perpetual exile and lived a marginal life, who was almost never employed and nearly always on the verge of poverty. He must have developed a profound familiarity with failure — even a flair for it. He knew how to appreciate a worthwhile case of failure, how to observe its unfolding and savor its complexity. For failure is irreducibly unique: successful people always manage to look the same, but those who fail fail so differently. Each case of failure has a physiognomy and a beauty all of its own, and it takes a subtle connoisseur like Cioran to tell a seemingly banal but in fact great failure from a noisy yet mediocre one.
He first encountered failure in his native land, among his fellow Romanians. Cioran was born and grew up in Transylvania, a province that had for a long time been part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and only lately, in 1918, became part of the Romanian kingdom. Even today Transylvanians display a strong work ethic, and seriousness, discipline, and self-control are held in high esteem. But when Cioran went to college in Bucharest, the country’s southern capital, he stepped into a whole new cultural universe. Here the winning skills were different: the art of doing nothing, sophistry (from slightly playful to plainly cynical) trumping intellectual soundness, procrastination as métier, wasting one’s life as vocation. As an undergraduate philosophy student, Cioran came in touch with some of Bucharest’s best performers in this respect. The mix of intellectual brilliance and a striking sense of personal failure that some of them exhibited gained his unconditional, perpetual admiration:
In Bucharest I met lots of people, many interesting people, especially losers, who would show up at the cafe, talking endlessly and doing nothing. I have to say that, for me, these were the most interesting people there. People who did nothing all their lives, but who otherwise were brilliant.
For the rest of his life Cioran would remain secretly indebted to that land of failure that was his country. And he was right to do so. For Romanians entertain a unique relationship to failure; just as the Eskimos have countless words for snow, the Romanian language seems to have just as many associated with failure. One of the verbal constructions most often used in Romanian, which Cioran cherished, is n-a fost să fie (literally, “it wasn’t to be,” but with strong predestination undertones). The country is truly a goldmine.
Cioran was famously a misanthrope, but if there was one human type for which he had understanding and compassion, it was le raté, the failure. In 1941, already in Paris, he confesses to a Romanian friend: “I would like to write a Philosophy of Failure, with the subtitle For the Exclusive Use of the Romanian People, but I don’t think I will be able to do it.” Whenever Cioran looked back to his youth, he would always remember, with a mix of fascination, tenderness, and admiration, the great losers and the endless spectacle of failure he encountered in Bucharest. As an emerging writer, the country’s literary scene surely attracted him, but not nearly as much as its failure scene: “My best friends in Romania were not at all writers, but failures.” The professor of philosophy at the University of Bucharest who had the most decisive influence on the young Cioran, Nae Ionescu (1890–1940), was by the usual standards a spectacular failure. He didn’t publish any books, his lectures were often plagiarized or improvised on the spot, and sometimes he didn’t show up to classes because he “didn’t have anything to say.” His laziness was legend. Otherwise Ionescu was one of the most brilliant minds of his generation — a “genius,” by many firsthand accounts. Always the philosopher, Ionescu even developed a little theory of failure (which, appropriately, he preferred not to publish).
Yet Cioran did not content himself with being a distant observer of failure. Early on, he started practicing it himself, and he did so in style. In 1933, just out of college, he was awarded a visiting graduate studentship at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. No sooner did Cioran arrive in Germany than he fell in love with the freshly installed Nazi regime. In November that year, he writes to his friend Mircea Eliade: “I am absolutely enthralled by the political order they’ve set up here.” Cioran found in Hitler’s Germany whatever he could not in the still relatively democratic Romania. The country was seized by political hysteria and mass mobilization, which Cioran thought to be a good thing; the Nazi regime had given the Germans the sense of a “historical mission,” something which Romania’s democracy would never be able to offer. While others were detecting the debut of a catastrophe of historic proportion in Germany at the time, Cioran saw only promise and historical greatness. And what exactly made Hitler so great? His capacity to arouse the “irrational impulses” of the German people, answered Cioran, trying to sound like an objective observer. Barely 22 years old, he started practicing failure in all seriousness.
By fall 1933, Cioran was already a rapidly rising star in the Romanian letters, having even as an undergraduate contributed a handful of strikingly original essays in some of the country’s literary outlets. Now these periodicals wanted more from him; they wanted, especially, coverage of the German political scene. In a dispatch he sent to the weekly Vremea (December 1933), Cioran wrote, pen firmly in hand: “If I like something about Hitlerism, it is the cult of the irrational, the exultation of pure vitality, the virile expression of strength, without any critical spirit, restraint, or control.” Abusing a cliché much loved by the enemies of liberal democracy everywhere, Cioran pities here a “decadent” and “effeminate” Europe against a proudly “masculine” Germany, all muscles, noise, and fury. Hitler is conspicuously the man in charge, and Cioran is appropriately impressed. Several months later (July 1934), in another dispatch to the same periodical, he wasn’t shy at all about expressing his unbound admiration for the one with balls: “Of all politicians today, Hitler is the one I like and admire most.” And yet the worst is still to come.
Cioran is so smitten by the “virile” order established by Hitler in Germany that he can’t have enough of it, so he wants a version of it transplanted into his native country. In a letter to another friend, Petru Comarnescu (December 1933), he wrote:
I agree with many of the things I’ve seen here, and I am persuaded that our native good-for-nothingness could be stifled, if not eradicated, by a dictatorial regime. In Romania, only terror, brutality and infinite anxiety could still lead to some change. All Romanians should be arrested and beaten to a pulp; only after such a beating could a superficial people make history.
Issues of public interest are often mixed in Cioran with matters of a more private nature. Right after this detailed recipe for helping his fellow Romanians “make history,” he drops a rather personal note: “It’s awful to be Romanian,” he writes. As a Romanian, “you never win the trust of any women, and serious people smile at you dismissively; when they see that you are smart, they think you are a cheat.”
This confession, indirect as it may be, takes us head-on into the drama of young Cioran’s situation. This unfolds in several layers. First, an odd notion seems to have hatched in his mind that he is not allowed to separate his personal worth from the historical merits of the national community to which he belongs. Next, upon measuring that community’s worth, he finds it wanting — and badly so. Historically, thinks Cioran, Romania is a “failed nation,” and its failure cannot but rub off on all Romanians. Indeed, as if this was not bad enough, quitting is not an option, since “one’s separation from one’s nation leads to failure” — there is failure in, but even more failure out. So at a relatively young age Cioran has managed to lock himself within a most serious existential impasse. That this drama is largely one of his own making doesn’t make it less painful. On the contrary, it’s something that will wound him and his work profoundly. The practice of failure can be a bloody business.
It’s this drama — “the drama of insignificance,” as Cioran will call it later — that lies behind the book he publishes soon after his return from Germany: Romania’s Transfiguration (Schimbarea la faţă a României, 1936). He writes it, above all, to treat a wounded pride. That’s what happens to those born in a “small culture”: their pride is always wounded. “It is not at all comfortable to have been born in a second-rate country,” he notes. “Lucidity becomes tragedy.” He feels so crushed by the minor cultural status of his country that, to ease the pain, he wouldn’t hesitate to sell his soul: “I’d gladly give up half of my life if I could experience with the same intensity that which the most insignificant of Greeks, Romans or Frenchmen experienced even for a moment at the climax of their history.” Reinventing himself, becoming someone else just as a way to deal with le désespoir d’être roumain, is something Cioran will do all his life; self-alienation will become a second nature for him. In The Trouble with Being Born, one of the aphorisms reads: “In continual rebellion against my ancestry, I have spent my whole life wanting to be something else: Spanish, Russian, cannibal — anything, except what I was.” He could forgive God for many things, but never for having made him Romanian. To be Romanian is not some biographical fact, but a metaphysical catastrophe, a personal tragedy of enormous proportions. “How can one be Romanian?” Cioran wonders exasperatedly. How can one be something so close to nothingness, so unlikely to exist? In Romania’s Transfiguration, he describes his fellow Romanians as all too “mediocre, slow, resigned, understanding,” awfully well-behaved. For the life of him Cioran cannot accept such a people as his own. Impossibly passive and self-effacing, Romanians have missed all the chances to leave any significant trace in the world. Romania is a country that has slept its way through history.
But Cioran is nothing if not self-contradictory. Elsewhere in the book he “loves Romania’s past with a heavy hatred,” and has big dreams for its future. He envisions nothing less than “a Romania with the population of China and the destiny of France.” The country is fine — it just needs a bit of a shaking up here and there; above all, it needs to be “pushed” into history. What that means exactly Cioran doesn’t say, but he gives us a hint when he assures us that he can only “love a Romania in delirium.” And for such lofty ends any means are justified, aren’t they? As Cioran puts it himself, “all means are legitimate for a people that opens a road for itself in the world. Terror, crime, bestiality and perfidy are base and immoral only in decadence […] if they assist a people’s ascension, they are virtues. All triumphs are moral.” Again, the politics of the testosterone, the eroticism of raw power. Only a dictatorship of the irrational, the like of which Cioran has seen in Germany, can save this country from itself. You wonder sometimes for how long can one toy with failure before being crushed by it?
Within a few years, when Romania’s own fascist movement, the violently anti-Semitic Iron Guard, would gain access to power for a few months in late 1940, Cioran would endorse them, if in his own ambiguous way. A “Romania in delirium,” of which he used to dream, was finally taking shape, and it was an ugly sight: Romanian Jews were hunted down and murdered in cold blood, their properties looted and burned to the ground, while the gentile population was subjected to brutal religious-fundamentalist brainwashing. By then Cioran was already in France, reinventing himself in another language. Yet, during a brief trip back home, in a contribution dedicated to the memory of the movement’s founding leader, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu (the so-called “Captain,” 1899–1938), which he read on national radio, Cioran pontificated:
Before Corneliu Codreanu, Romania was but an inhabited Sahara … I had only a few conversations with Corneliu Codreanu. From the first moment I realized that I was talking to a man in a country of human dregs … The Captain was not “smart,” the Captain was profound.
This profound “Captain” was, among other things, a rabid anti-Semite; he openly advocated political assassination, and was a political assassin himself. Against the background of a precarious democratic culture in interwar Romania, aided by personal charisma and a singular lack of scruples, Codreanu almost singlehandedly pushed the country into chaos in the 1930s. And now Cioran was praising him.
When it comes to failing, a thinker — even one as notoriously irresponsible as the young Cioran was — could hardly sink any lower. What was wrong with him, you are asking, just as his democratically minded friends were at the time? In the coming years Cioran himself would be visited by the question, over and over again, with depressing urgency. When he was first confronted with the enormity of his pro-fascist political stance, soon after the end of the war, he almost didn’t recognize himself in Romania’s Transfiguration and his political journalism. The horrors of the war, the enormity of the Holocaust, in which some of his Jewish friends died, woke him up abruptly; those texts must have looked to him now like the stuff of nightmares. Then the working of time made him see things ever more clearly. “Sometimes I ask myself if it really was me who wrote these ravings they quote,” he writes in 1973, in a letter to his brother. “Enthusiasm is a form of delirium. We once had this illness, from which nobody wants to believe we have recovered.” In a little posthumous text, My Country (Mon Pays, 1996), Cioran refers to the contents of Romania’s Transfiguration as “the ravings of a wild madman.” This, be it said in passing, is the outcome of an intense practice of failure: before you know it, you bring another person into the world. One day you look for yourself in the mirror only to discover someone else there staring at you.
It’s never easy to pin Cioran down, but when it comes to his political past it’s nearly impossible. It doesn’t help matters that, beyond vague references to the “ravings” and “enthusiasm” of his youth, the later Cioran was usually reluctant to touch on “those years.” And for good reason: he knew only too well what was there. Failure hates to travel alone: it usually prefers shame’s company. In another letter to his brother, Cioran writes: “The writer who has done some stupid things in his youth, upon his debut, is like a woman with a shameful past. Never forgiven, never forgotten.” To the end of his days, his political involvement in interwar Romania would remain Cioran’s biggest shame, his most serious, shattering failure. Everything else failed in comparison.
A further glimpse into Cioran’s peculiar manner of political thinking, in a letter he sent to Mircea Eliade in 1935: “My formula for all things political,” he writes, “is the following: fight wholeheartedly for things in which you do not believe.” Not that such a confession brings much clarity to Cioran’s involvement, but it places his “ravings” within a certain psychological perspective. This split personality characterized the later Cioran, and it makes sense, for a philosopher who sees the world as a failure of grand proportions, to mock the cosmic order (and himself in the process) by pretending that there is some meaning where there is none. You know that everything is pointless, but by behaving as if it wasn’t, you manage to articulate your dissent and undermine the designs of the “evil demiurge.” And you do that with boundless irony and humor, which is rigorously meant to counter the divine farce. He who laughs last laughs hardest.
When he returned from Germany, in 1936, Cioran did a brief stint as a high school philosophy teacher in Braşov, in central Romania. This, too, was a spectacular failure, the last attempt he made to keep a full-time job. During a logic class, for instance, Cioran would tell the high school students that everything in the universe was irremediably sick, including the principle of identity. When a student once asked him, “What’s ethics, sir?” Cioran told the student he shouldn’t worry, that there was no such thing as ethics. His classes were in a perpetual state of chaos, and the students were as puzzled as his colleagues by this unlikeliest of teachers. When Cioran eventually quit, the principal, to celebrate, drank himself into a stupor.
In 1937, realizing that he could never distinguish himself in that land of failure, he decided to once again leave Romania. He considered this decision to be “by far the most intelligent thing” he’d ever done. His first choice had been Spain — that most “spectacular example of failure” — so he applied for a fellowship at the Spanish Embassy in Bucharest just two months before the start of the Spanish Civil War, and never heard back. Paris was, he decided, the right place for someone with his aspirations: “Before the war,” he remembers, “Paris was the ideal place to fail your life, and especially Romanians were famous for that.”
Cioran cut off his Romanian ties and adopted a new existence. He even gave himself a new name: E. M. Cioran. At some point, he started writing and speaking almost exclusively in French (he used Romanian only for cursing, for which French he found was poorly equipped). Technically, Cioran had come to Paris on a graduate scholarship; he was supposed to attend classes at the Sorbonne and write a doctoral dissertation on some philosophical topic. But even as he applied for the scholarship he knew full well that he would never write it. He had finally realized what he was after: the life of a parasite! All he needed to live securely in France was a student ID, which gave him access to cheap university cafeterias. He could live like that forever. And so he did, at least for a while:
At forty I was still enrolled at the Sorbonne, I was eating at the student cafeteria, and I was hoping that this would last till the end of my days. And then a law was passed which forbade the enrollment of students older than twenty-seven, and which chased me away from this paradise.
Now, expelled from the parasites’ paradise, Cioran had to do some odd jobs. Some of his better-off Romanian friends (Ionesco, for example) would help him out sometimes. Otherwise he had to rely on the kindness of strangers. And Cioran proved himself considerably flexible, keeping his misanthropy in check: he would befriend pretty much anyone who would offer him the prospect of a free dinner. That’s how he got to know les vieilles dames of Paris so well. His rigorous training in philosophy came in handy; Cioran would come with his exquisite conversation and sing for his supper. Then there was the Paris church scene: whenever he had the chance, the God-basher Cioran would merrily show up at the Romanian Orthodox Church for free dining opportunities.
Cioran would do anything, except take up a job. Doing so would have been the failure of his life. “For me,” an older Cioran remembers, “the main thing was to safeguard my freedom. Had I ever accepted to take up an office job, to make a living, I would have failed.” In order not to fail, then, he chose a path most would consider failure embodied, but Cioran knew that failure is always a complicated affair. “I avoided at any price the humiliation of a career […] I preferred to live like a parasite [rather] than to destroy myself by keeping a job.” As all great idlers know, there is perfection in inaction: Cioran was not only aware of it, but he also cultivated it all his life. When an interviewer asked him about his working routines, Cioran answered: “Most of the time I don’t do anything. I am the idlest man in Paris […] the only one who does less than I do is a whore without clients.”
As someone who entertained such an intimate relationship with failure, it is no wonder that Cioran was suspicious of success: “There is something of the charlatan in anyone who triumphs in any realm whatever,” he wrote, and with the exception of the Rivarol Prize, he rejected all the prizes that the French literary establishment bestowed on him. When public success finally reached him, he gave few interviews and always kept a low profile. “Je suis un ennemi de la gloire” was his credo. Of Borges he once said: “The misfortune of being recognized has befallen him. He deserved better.” In The Trouble with Being Born, Cioran speaks of an “existence constantly transfigured by failure” as an enviable life project. Such an existence would be serenity embodied, wisdom in flesh: all “luxe, calme et volupté.”
Failure, then, was Cioran’s close companion, loyal muse, chief inspiration. He looks at the world — at people, events, and situations — through its unflinching eyes. He can measure, for example, the depth of someone’s inner life by the way they approach failure: “This is how we recognize the man who has tendencies toward an inner quest: he will set failure above any success.” How so? Because failure, Cioran thinks, “always essential, reveals us to ourselves, permits us to see ourselves as God sees us, whereas success distances us from what is most inward in ourselves and indeed in everything.” Show me how you deal with failure, and I will tell you more about yourself. Only “in failure, in the greatness of a catastrophe, can you know someone.”
Whatever success he had, Cioran considered it from the standpoint of his lifetime “failure project,” and he developed a habit of reading success into failure and failure into success. The most successful things he did were not his books, celebrated and translated all over the world as they became, nor his growing influence among people of philosophical taste. Not even his status as a master of the French language. “The big success of my life,” he says, “is that I’ve managed to live without having a job. At the end of the day, I’ve lived my life well. I’ve pretended it has been a failure, but it hasn’t.”
In his books, Cioran never stopped berating the gods, except, we might say, for the god of failure, the demiurge of the Gnostics. There is something distinctly Gnostic about Cioran’s anti-cosmic philosophy and the manner of his thinking. Gnostic insights, images, and metaphors permeate his work, as scholars of Gnosticism have noticed. A Short History of Decay, The Temptation to Exist, and The New Gods, writes Jacques Lacarrière, are “texts which match the loftiest flashes of Gnostic thought.” Just like the Gnostics of old, Cioran sees creation as the result of a divine failure; human history and civilization are for him nothing but “the work of the devil,” the demiurge’s other name. In A Short History of Decay, he deems the God of this world “incompetent.” “Of all that was attempted on this side of nothingness,” he wonders, “is there anything more pathetic than this world, except for the idea which conceived it?” The French title of one of his most influential books, which in English has been published as The New Gods, is telling — Le Mauvais démiurge (1969): “the evil demiurge.” Here, with unconcealed sympathy, Cioran calls the Gnostics “fanatics of the divine nothingness” and praises them for having “grasped so well the essence of the fallen world.”
The cosmos is “fallen” for Cioran, but so is the social and political world. For truly nothing escapes failure for this 20th-century Gnostic. In an attempt to transcend the political failures of his youth, he sought to understand their deeper meaning and incorporate this understanding into the texture of his mature thinking. The result was a more nuanced philosophizing and a more humane thinker: his experiments with failure brought Cioran closer to a province of humanity to which he could not otherwise have had access, that of the ashamed and the humbled. You come across in his French books passages on failure of an inspired, drunken wisdom:
At the climax of failure, at the moment when shame is about to do us in, suddenly we are swept away by a frenzy of pride which lasts only long enough to drain us, to leave us without energy, to lower, with our powers, the intensity of our shame.
The lifelong practice of failure, along with an obsessive reflection on it, eventually changed Cioran. As he grew older he became more tolerant, more accepting of other people’s follies and oddities. Not that the French Cioran suddenly became a “democratic” thinker. God forbid, that could never happen to him; to the end he would remain a prophet of the “decadence of the West,” the thinker of dark, apocalyptic apprehensions. In History and Utopia (Histoire et Utopie, 1960), for instance, he notes:
Whenever I happen to be in a city of any size, I marvel that riots do not break out every day: massacres, unspeakable carnage, a doomsday chaos. How can so many human beings coexist in a space so confined without destroying each other, without hating each other to death? As a matter of fact, they do hate each other, but they are not equal to their hatred. And it is this mediocrity, this impotence, that saves society, that assures its continuance, its stability.
No, Cioran did not become a champion of liberal democracy. But somehow he must have learned to enjoy the comedy of the world — indeed, to take part, with alacrity, in undermining the cosmic failure. Cioran’s later thinking exhibits a peculiar feature that, in lack of a better term, may be called joyous desperation (Cioran sees himself as un pessimiste joyeux). It’s the same pattern, over and over again: something turns out to be outrageous, plain awful, and yet somehow in that very awfulness there lies the seed of its redemption. Life can be unbearable, the insomnia is a killer, le cafard is slowly eating you away, and yet this is something you can handle through writing. “Everything that is expressed becomes more tolerable,” proclaims Cioran. Writing is a magnificent witchcraft that acts upon its practitioners and renders their lives more bearable. The negative never comes in a pure state — there is always something that undermines it; the catastrophe, to the extent that’s utterable, carries within it its own redemption.
One of the most intriguing things about the later Cioran’s writings is his voice as a political critic. In History and Utopia, there is a chapter called “Letter to a Faraway Friend.” The text was indeed meant as a letter and published originally in La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1957. The “faraway friend,” living well behind the Iron Curtain, was the Romanian philosopher Constantin Noica. In his letter Cioran, unsurprisingly, harpoons the political regime set up by Soviet Russia in Eastern Europe for making a mockery of an important philosophical idea. “The capital reproach one can address to your regime,” he writes, “is that it has ruined Utopia, a principle of renewal in both institutions and peoples.” Cioran can have no sympathy for a regime that needs the Russian tanks for its installment and perpetuation. Such a communist political regime has pretty much killed off the communist idea itself.
More importantly, however, in the same letter, Cioran subjects the West to an almost equally severe critique. “We find ourselves dealing with two types of society — both intolerable,” he writes here. “And the worst of it is that the abuses in yours permit this one to persevere in its own, to offer its own horrors as a counterpoise to those cultivated chez vous.” The West shouldn’t congratulate itself for “saving” civilization. The decline is already so advanced, Cioran believes, that nothing can be saved any more, except perhaps for the appearances. The two “types of society” are not that different from each other. In final analysis, it’s only a matter of nuance:
The difference between regimes is less important than it appears; you are alone by force, we without constraint. Is the gap so wide between an inferno and a ravaging paradise? All societies are bad; but there are degrees, I admit, and if I have chosen this one, it is because I can distinguish among the nuances of trumpery.
For all its analytical and stylistic merits, however, Cioran’s letter turned out to be a political gaffe. For the addressee, Constantin Noica, who was trying to keep a low profile in the Romanian countryside, was in the habit of taking correspondence seriously, and Cioran’s text spurred him to respond with a sharp philosophical essay of his own. Noica was also a superbly naïve man. Upon completing the essay, he addressed it to his friend in Paris, and duly dropped the envelope in a street mailbox. The Romanian secret police, which had its fingers everywhere, including in all the country’s mailboxes, didn’t miss the exchange. But their philosophical tastes were slightly different, and as a result, Noica had to pay with several years of political prison for engaging in it. When Cioran learned the news of his friend’s arrest and imprisonment, he must have been amazed at how truly bottomless failure was. No matter what, you never stop failing.
E. M. Cioran died on June 20, 1995. In a sense, however, he had already left before he died. For the last several years he had suffered from Alzheimer’s and had been interned at the Broca Hospital in Paris. Fearing precisely such an ending, he had planned to commit suicide. Cioran and his longtime partner, Simone Boué, were to die together, like the Koestlers. But the disease was faster, the plan failed, and Cioran had to die the most humiliating of deaths, one that took several years to do its work. At first there were just some bothering signs: one day Cioran could not find his way back home from the city, which he — a consummate walker — knew like the back of his hand. He then started losing some of his memories; at times he didn’t seem to have a very clear sense of himself. His fabulous sense of humor apparently he lost last. One day a passerby asked him in the street, “Are you Cioran by any chance?” His answer was: “I used to be.” But the signs became too many and too serious: Cioran started to forget at such an alarming rate that he had to be interned. Eventually, the words failed him: one of the finest writers of his time, Cioran could no longer name the most basic things. Then it was the mind’s turn. In the end he forgot who he was altogether.
At one point during his long, final suffering, in a brief moment of lucidity, Cioran whispered to himself: “C’est la démission totale!” It was the grand, ultimate failure, and he didn’t fail to recognize it for what it was.
Author’s Note: This essay will be included in a book, In Praise of Failure, contracted with Harvard University Press.
Costica Bradatan is the author most recently of Dying for Ideas. The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury, 2015). He serves as the religion/comparative studies editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.