What rules the behaviour of human beings? Our needs, as materialist and utilitarian thinkers believe? Our intellect and the dictates of reason, as Platonists and Hegelians hope? Or do we obey our proud, irritable vital spirit, sometimes generous but quite often vicious? Few people nowadays would give the third answer, but a century ago, the disciples of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche defended it in an appropriately proud and ferocious tone of voice. We live in a world in which, according to Schopenhauer, suffering is ‘the direct and immediate object of life’. The best way of considering our life is to accustom ourselves ‘to regarding this world as a place of atonement, a sort of penal colony’ and to think of ‘every man first and foremost as a being who exists only as a consequence of his culpability’. Because we all have proud, irritable hearts, the faults and vices we see in others are similar to our own. Forbearance is Schopenhauer’s solution.
But might not patience and compassion serve as a veil behind which the weak would hide their hatred and resentment? My fellow sufferers might well have tried and failed to break free of their own chains and yet want me to keep on carrying mine. Instead of forbearance, Nietzsche enjoins us to assert our thirst for power. If life is a galley, the truly superior beings should strive to be masters, not slaves: ‘Not contentment, but more power; not peace at all, but war; not virtue, but proficiency.’ A stronger type of human being would tear off the veil of hypocrisy, otherwise known as reason and moral virtue, do away with guilt, celebrate instinct, preach violence and follow the call of its fierce heart.
Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston’s Searching for Cioran, which discusses the intellectual development of the Romanian-born French essayist, makes clear that in the days before and after the First World War, such Nietzschean calls were eagerly listened to. In the 1930s celebrations of the will to power were commonplace. Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (1908) had inspired several radical movements, including the monarchist Action Française, the Bolsheviks and the Italian Fascists. The present state of the world is unbearable, Sorel had argued, adding that radical social change must be achieved through the propagation of a myth that would seduce the minds of the masses, set their passions alight, and justify the use of violence. Sorel’s own myth was that of the general strike, but his disciples came up with different ideas, some extolling the role of the working class, others worshipping the power of the nation.
Supporters of this last idea were everywhere. In France, Julien Benda, one of their most forceful adversaries, criticised the nationalist intellectuals who subjected truth and reason to political passion and deified the nation’s immediate self-interest. ‘They seem to clamour: “Finally we are allowed to adore ourselves and our wish to be great, not good.”’ Written in the mid-1920s, these words call to mind the slogans totalitarian politicians were soon to adopt. In Mussolini’s Italy, national self-adoration already required ardent identification with the state. In Hitler’s Germany, it would rely on a belief in manufactured pagan cults mixed with a pseudo-scientific racism. Less well known, further to the east, the Romanian extreme right pursued similar goals, while exhibiting its own peculiarities.
In contrast with Germany, where nationalist extremism was aroused by the loss of territory and population after 1918, in Romania the emergence of the far right was a response to the difficulty of managing territorial gains and ethnic diversity. A map in Zarifopol-Johnston’s book shows that as a result of the Treaty of Versailles and the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, Romania doubled its territory. It now included Transylvania, which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Bessarabia, taken back from Russia. Although the majority of residents in both regions were Romanian, the incorporation of these provinces considerably increased the number of Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Turks, Bulgarians and other minorities, most of whom weren’t members of the Orthodox Church, the established church in Romania. Emulating the French model of national unity, the government pursued an energetic policy of administrative Romanisation.
The policy didn’t go far enough, however, to satisfy the Legion of the Archangel Michael. Founded in 1927, the Legion advocated a spiritually reborn, fully Romanian nation. Religious fervour and support for the Orthodox Church were a crucial part of its message. Violence was also essential. The Legion’s paramilitary branch, appropriately called the Iron Guard, was responsible for several assassinations in the 1930s. The government answered in kind, arranging for the murder of the Iron Guard’s early leaders. But far from weakening the Legion’s influence, the mixture of violence and mystic patriotism fascinated students and young intellectuals.
Cioran, as Zarifopol-Johnston reminds us, was a sympathiser. Born in Transylvania a few years before World War One, he came from a family that had been active in the Romanian struggle for recognition within the Habsburg Empire. He studied philosophy in Bucharest and his first book, On the Heights of Despair, written when he was 22, hymned the superior soul imprisoned in this vale of tears.
Mesmerised by the Legion’s radicalism, Cioran wrote an essay on the future of his country, The Transfiguration of Romania (1936), which proposed a national myth convergent with the Legion’s goals, yet based on a strikingly different premise. As Zarifopol-Johnston explains, the Legion professed an absolute allegiance to the nation: a pure, unadulterated, Romanian nation represented the highest good, and the members of the Iron Guard were expected to make every sacrifice for it, not just of earthly, but even of eternal life. In contrast, Cioran’s book started from the bleak observation that Romania was a second-rate country with an as yet underdeveloped culture. He argued that for individuals to ‘be saved’ (we would say ‘flourish’) they needed to live in a great culture. Romania, therefore, had to become a major power. But far from recommending a reasonable long-term programme, Cioran envisaged a sudden rebirth that would take place in a single moment of illumination. Just as Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor, where he shone like the sun, conversed with dead prophets and was addressed as ‘Son’ by the voice of God (Matthew 17.1-9), the transfiguration of Romania would confer an instant radiance on the country that would turn it into the bearer of a higher destiny. As for other ethnic groups and the country’s neighbours, Cioran considered them obstacles to Romania’s rebirth.
Romania, of course, failed to fulfil Cioran’s dreams and in 1937, having won a doctoral fellowship, he moved to Paris and stayed there. Zarifopol-Johnston argues that at some point between 1940 and 1945 he turned away from nationalism and xenophobia – life in Nazi-occupied Paris may have prompted him to think again. Primer of Passions, written in Romanian during the war and published in French much later as Bréviaire des vaincus (1993), resonates with disappointment. Bidding farewell to his native country and welcoming exile and solitude, Cioran now saw the world as an illusion, ‘a self-suggestion of the heart’. He still believed that for a nation ‘the urge to be great and useless is the supreme excuse.’ Alas, in his native country ‘an innate serfdom extinguished the flame of glory’ – ‘the slightest hope would be folly.’ For the disappointed and defeated, the only heroism consists in acknowledging a universal meaninglessness: ‘If I had to run an army, I would lead it to death without lying: without fatherland, without ideals, without the false bait of a reward, earthly or heavenly.’ Cioran’s advice to the defeated was to ‘sin by solitude, harm by breaking up, know no joy but that of retreat’. Schopenhauer’s ghost haunts the book.
It is still present in A Short History of Decay (1949), Cioran’s first work in French – in an exquisite classical French. The young right-winger described by Zarifopol-Johnston had by then come to understand the inner workings of fanaticism and was ready to denounce it: ‘In itself any idea is neutral or should be, but man spurs it on, charges it with his own fire and madness. Adulterated, changed into belief, it enters time, becomes event: the move from logic to epilepsy is made. This is how ideologies, doctrines and bloody farces are born.’ In a bitter, prophetic tone, now urging scepticism rather than transfiguration, Cioran describes human beings as idolaters by instinct who worship false absolutes and humiliate themselves in front of the improbable. They force their gods on everyone and would exterminate those who refuse to believe. Society is a hell populated by saviours. Diogenes would search in vain for an indifferent man. Nothing, Cioran sighs, is worse than collective enthusiasm.
This rejection of collectivist ideology did not, however, involve a turn to practical rationality. Life for the mature Cioran was still a dream dreamed by delirious beings for whom reality is little besides the outcome of their delirium. The ideologies they invent in order to master it are dangerous precisely because they wear the mask of utility. The only people who are free are those who have got rid of the obsession with being helpful. As in Baudelaire, ennui holds the human world together. Ideals make no sense and hatred, the one feeling we can fully experience, has in the end no object. Schopenhauer’s presence here is overwhelming, but while he believed that keeping a wise, contemplative distance could serve to overcome suffering, in Cioran’s world the tragedy of life knows no catharsis, no salvation. Fate, not faith or meaning, rules it. If God exists, he asks him to stay away from human solitude and its torments with his inept omnipotence.
The book was a succès d’estime, winning Cioran the friendship of smart people, at whose dinner parties he played the role of brilliant conversationalist. His taste for society life contrasted with his self-imposed poverty. He lived in the centre of Paris, on the sixth floor of a building without a lift, with his French partner, Simone Boué, in what had been servants’ quarters with a shared toilet in the corridor.
In The Temptation to Exist (1956) Cioran clearly alludes to his own early beliefs when he wonders why extremist positions seduce so many people. As in A Short History of Decay, he sees the fault as lying in our nature. The ‘I’ is nothing but the site of a burning, destructive vital energy. ‘We perish through the “I” we take on: to carry a name is to qualify for a peculiar kind of dejection.’ Could we learn to put a distance between ourselves and the world? Jews, whom he now praises, managed to survive outside history, but Europeans know only how to live dangerously. The taste for risk and the desire for greatness, which a few years earlier counted as the ‘supreme excuse’ of nations, are now seen as reprehensible. Reflecting on his youth, and on World War Two and its aftermath, had convinced Cioran that European civilisation was exhausted, preoccupied only with increasing its sorrows.
Ironically, Cioran’s lamentations coincided with one of Western Europe’s most prosperous periods, the ‘trente glorieuses’ as economists call them, from 1945 to 1975, during which robust economic growth, full employment and the progress of democratic institutions in West Germany and Italy went a long way towards healing the wounds left by the war. But Romania, along with the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, had been forcibly incorporated into the Soviet bloc and many feared that Western Europe might share this fate. Shortly after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and its suppression by the Soviet army, Cioran wrote a remarkable letter to ‘a far-away friend’, Constantin Noica, a philosopher who still lived in Romania. Acknowledging his early political extremism (‘I was young and could neither accept any truths other than mine nor concede the right to have theirs to my opponents’) and explicitly supporting political tolerance, Cioran nevertheless argued that life in Eastern and Western Europe was ultimately equivalent. ‘We face two kinds of equally intolerable society,’ he declared. While in Eastern Europe, Soviet-supported regimes exploited and shattered utopian hopes, ruining ‘the principle of renewal of institutions and peoples’, the bourgeoisie in Western Europe was ‘saved from immediate destruction only by the failure of the other side, by the spectacle of a great idea being disfigured’. ‘Freedoms prosper only in a sick social body,’ he claimed. ‘Tolerance is synonymous with impotence.’ Needless to say, the Romanian secret police did not appreciate this point of view, and Noica, and many of his friends, were arrested. They were subjected to a show trial, condemned to long prison sentences and pardoned only in the mid-1960s.
Having examined and condemned his own savage feelings, Cioran suspected that all humans were ruled, as he had been in his youth, by an explosive mixture of anger and illusion. The democrats’ appeal to reason was for him a signal that in Western Europe this mixture wasn’t working any more. Soviet ruthlessness appeared to preserve it better, but Cioran’s experience taught him that sooner or later there, too, the illusion would lose its power and the anger its force. In the meantime, he accepted democracy while mistrusting it. The tragic paradox of liberty, he wrote, is that the ‘mediocre people, who alone make it possible, wouldn’t be able to guarantee its survival. We owe everything to their insignificance and we lose everything through it.’ Far from hoping that some fresh doctrine would improve things, Cioran warns against new assertive and therefore murderous dogmas.
With the passing of time his pessimism mellowed. France soothed his dark side: he had perhaps been right to think that for some people being surrounded by a great culture is the only salvation. In an interview in 1979, he acknowledged this change and attributed it to his experience of human beings: ‘Man is an abyss, let’s say. By essence. Rather evil than good. This is my way of seeing things. It was Nietzsche’s as well. But Nietzsche, like all loners, is a pure type. This is why I feel much closer to La Rochefoucauld, to French moralists … To me, they are the ones who understood man, because they lived in society.’
Cioran’s late writings still deplore the human abyss, but the mood is lighter. In one essay he writes of what he calls, with graceful understatement, the ‘inconvenience’ of being born. Now and then his aphorisms and fragments turn away from human folly to take a quick glance at art and philosophy. He doesn’t hide his contempt for the avant-garde: ‘There is no true art without a strong dose of banality. Those who constantly use the out of the ordinary soon get wearisome, since nothing is less tolerable than the monotony of the extraordinary.’ And, targeting the ‘linguistic turn’: ‘The true writer writes about beings, things and events, not about writing. He uses words but doesn’t linger on words.’ Philosophy, too, is ridiculous when it focuses on language rather than being: ‘One would never know whether when writing on pain, this philosopher treats a question of syntax or speaks about the foremost, the queen, of sensations.’ His Exercises in Admiration (1986), a collection of essays on a variety of thinkers and writers, testifies to a newly acquired art of approval.
In the second half of her book, Zarifopol-Johnston describes her own meetings with Cioran in the early 1990s. He was by then a friendly old man, fully cured of his youthful crazes but still ashamed of them. Like ‘certain women’, he confessed to her, he had ‘a past’. But, as she points out, ‘he apologised and retracted.’ By this time Cioran had become a cult figure. His books were selling very well; Gallimard was preparing an edition of his complete works. He had been awarded several international prizes – which, he complained, he had absurdly decided to refuse. The collapse of the Soviet system had validated his anti-totalitarian views and his diatribes against ideology, any ideology, now sounded refreshingly apt. His warnings about our reckless vital spirit suited the belief that people should be ruled by a mixture of needs, judgment and reason. These warnings are not obsolete.