Save us from saviours

Thomas Pavel

  • Searching for Cioran by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston
    Indiana, 284 pp, £18.99, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 253 35267 5
  • A Short History of Decay by E.M. Cioran, translated by Richard Howard
    Penguin, 186 pp, £9.99, May 2010, ISBN 978 0 14 119272 7

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.

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