E.M Cioran: To Infinity And Beyond

Stephen Mitchelmore explains why the writing of E.M. Cioran refuses explanation

“Nothing is more irritating than those works which ‘co-ordinate’ the luxuriant products of a mind that has focused on just about everything except a system.”

What is there to know about Emile Cioran? He was born in Romania, in 1911, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest. In adolescence, he lost his childhood in the country and was moved to the city. He also lost his religion. For years he didn’t sleep – until he took up cycling. He passed sleepless nights wandering the dodgy streets of an obscure Romanian city. In 1937 he moved to Paris and wrote, producing what are generally classified as ‘aphorisms’, collected together under such titles as The Temptation To Exist, A Short History Of Decay and The Trouble With Being Born. He knew Samuel Beckett, who eventually lost sympathy with his pessimism. Late in life he gave up writing, not wanting to “slander the universe” anymore, and died a few years later after an encounter with an over-excited dog.

I hope none of this helps.

Cioran’s sentences are of little or no help. That is their worth. Just think of the aphorisms; each sentence has the company of only one or two others. The gaps between groups of sentences appear like sands of the desert encroaching on an oasis. Or is it the other way around? That the answer is so unclear is the worth of Cioran’s sentences.

His aphorisms are unlike the smug, bourgeois exponents of the Nineteenth century. They open wounds. Still, Cioran is not studied. This is the academic orthodoxy. And that’s fine. Scholars read texts like drivers read diversion signs. La Rochefoucauld 20 miles, Nietzsche 40, Existentialism, forever. Alternatively, just read the sentences.

“… lyricism represents a dispersal of subjectivity.”

The end of a sentence in this case; a place of especial elation and despair. (The want of elation and despair generating their presence in the vertiginous lack which is the peculiarity of consciousness. Reading is like consciousness in that nothing happens. ) Cioran is lyrical. His style is a varient on song. At the same time he is a writer of solitude and subjectivity. This last word has gained a pejorative meaning lately, akin to solipsism, selfishness, ignorance, certainly ‘untruth’. But let us wrest it back for as long as we can. Subjectivity is the state of struggle of one who is alive, within time: sleepless. “Three in the morning. I realize this second, then this one, then the next: I draw up the balance sheet for each minute. And why all this? Because I was born. It is a special type of sleeplessness that produces the indictment of birth.”

A special type of sleeplessness being where one is oneself forever and knows it. It is also an indictment of lyricism. Lyricism is sleep; the suppression of subjectivity, the impossible denial of ‘three in the morning’. Adorno’s call for an end to lyric poetry after Auschwitz is a wish for the return of each subject destroyed by a revolution lyrical to its evil core. The Volk wanted to sleep. Then it was mass rallies at Nuremburg, now its anything you care to name: popular culture indeed. Cioran’s physical insomnia disallowed the easy contempt for those who craved such sleep. He needed it too, to stay alive. A familiar irony: Cioran’s tragedy was also his saving. “Melancholy redeems this universe, and yet it is melancholy that separates us from it.”

When Cioran began to write in French he had, by then, conquered his insomnia. Exhausted by long bicycle rides, he slept. Still, the writing tries to abide in the old white nights of insomnia, only to collapse into the sleep toward which literature tends. Cioran’s writing tends to disperse the “three in the morning” in lyric expression. So, a bit of a disappointment, to say the least.

“As a general rule, men expect disappointment: they know they must not be impatient, that it will come soon or later, that it will hold off long enough for them to proceed with their undertakings of the moment. The disabused man is different: for him, disappointment occurs at the same time as the deed; he has no need to await it, it is present.”

To say again then, his disappointment with writing was inevitable. But this only drives one on, to divest words of their common usage and apply them to this moment. This one. In an interview, he tells of his disillusionment with writing’s other products, particularly those where disappointment is not an issue: ideas, grand narratives, systems. “Philosophers are constructors, positive men, positive, mind you, in a bad sense.” Elsewhere: “Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel – three enslavers of the mind. The worst form of despotism is the system, in philosophy and in everything.” Yet how can one write without constructing some system, even if it is negative?

“‘Optimists write badly’ (Valery). But pessimists do not write.” [Maurice Blanchot]

The violence of Cioran’s work, its verbosity and arrogance, results from a struggle with inevitable positivism. The use of aphorism is also borne of this. It demands our opposition. The blank following the sentences rises up before us. Our exasperation leaves the same silent space hovering there. This is the placeless heaven or hell Cioran is always returning us to. It is pointless to oppose or argue – or explain. One can scan the biographical parabola that gives shape to a life, thereby explaining it and the work, but something is left behind; this place he takes us to. The facts of a life help inasmuch as noise masks silence. But something is left behind. Generally, it seems students study, reviewers review, writers write and readers read in the hope of avoiding this. It’s what the people want, after all.

Cioran has also written essays. They demand the same kind of reading as the aphorisms. It just takes longer. In the landmark essays, the brilliance burns long and hard. Still, the tone remains more or less identical to the aphorisms. While the aphorisms give us the breathing space of a firebreak, the essays threaten suffocation. What is lost is the very sense of its inspiration, the surprise, the horror, the emptiness of the moment. Instead, Cioran has something to say. In ‘Beyond the Novel’, Cioran examines our self-conscious age with regard to what helped constitute it – the novel.

The essay develops out of the idea that the novel grew out of metaphysical poverty. It allowed us to understand our history and our psychology in a world where the old certainties were decaying. Yet now that the decay has reached a zero point, producing the kind of works bereft even of the certainty of the self as subject. If you don’t know what novels these are, they’re the ones NOT written by journalists. Yet however repulsively anachronistic the journalistic novel is (and virtually every novel published is a journalistic novel), Cioran wonders what is the point of writing more than one novel of absence:

“[the] implicit conception of this sort of art opposes to the erosion of being the inexhaustible reality of nothingness. Logically valueless, such a conception is nonetheless true affectively (to speak of nothingness in any other terms than affective one is a waste of time). It postulates a research without points of reference, an experiment pursued within an unfailing vacuity, a vacuity experienced through sensation, as well as a dialectic paradoxically frozen, motionless, a dynamism of monotony and emptiness. Is this not going around in circles? Ecstasy of non-meaning: the supreme impasse.”

This passage – representative of the whole – jerks the steering wheel as if to herald an eternal roundabout. But this will be Cioran’s own journey. Instead of condemning the novelist, and thereby commending his own judgement, Cioran gives him the benefit of the doubt. “Is [the novel] really dead, or only dying? My incompetence keeps me from making up my mind … I leave it to others, more expert, to establish the precise degree of its agony.”

Instead of only railing against repetitious failure, Cioran gives us the guidelines to which potential writers must abide if they are to create an art for the wilderness. In Kafka’s words, this is the help going away without helping. ‘Beyond the Novel’ adds to the demands of genuine creation, and thus the unexpected joy of what has been and might be achieved. Instead of postmodern cacophony – its sloppy apologia borne on positive negativism – we get to hear the silence behind the noise. One thinks of Beckett, of course, and the equally great Thomas Bernhard. To confirm this, Cioran pulls up in a lay-by and, in a passage one might describe as uncharacteristic, seems to hold back from hopelessness and bitter regret:

“Let us not be needlessly bitter: certain failures are sometimes fruitful … Let us salute it, then, even celebrate it: our solitude will be reinforced, affirmed. Cut off from one more channel of escape, up against ourselves at last, we are in a better position to inquire as to our functions and our limits, the futility of having a life.”

Well, not uncharacteristic after all. This is as near to abstract celebration as Cioran gets. He leaves it to others with ‘the courage of dilution’ to give us the succour using the ‘banalities’ necessary for the novel. His admiration for other writers is due precisely to their ability use the banal surface to reach the subterranean. Cioran’s rapid lyricism will not spread into a delta plain of banality to allow such an exploration. This is his limit.

Despite this, he is able to prospect worth by refamiliarizing us with what is important. Perhaps his most worthwhile work apart from the aphorisms, we can find in his short pieces on other writers collected in Anathemas And Admirations . In particular, the essay on Scott Fitzgerald. Here is a writer one might otherwise ignore: sentimental claptrap elevated to art by a lazy world. Cioran lays this aside. What he concentrates on the time when Fitzgerald awoke from the American Dream into the intensity of lucid consciousness, something “that transcends contingencies and continents”.

By this time, Fitzgerald’s famous books have been written, the American definition of success achieved: fame, money and even requited love. “Literally and figuratively, [Fitzgerald] had lived asleep. But then sleep left him.” Why? Returning to the his deepest theme, Cioran answers: “Insomnia sheds a light on us which we do not desire but to which, unconsciously, we tend. We demand it in spite of ourselves, against ourselves.”

Fitzgerald’s inner experience remained despite worldly success, indeed was heightened as a result. On the heights of his despair, Fitzgerald wrote ‘The Crack-Up’. Cioran’s commentary on this non-work – it was a series of fragments – is like most of Cioran’s commentaries, a commentary on his own procedure, also a series of fragments. ‘The Crack-Up’ represents for Cioran the direction Fitzgerald should have pursued rather than regarding it as an aberration. He tried to overcome it by going to Hollywood to write screenplays. Fitzgerald is rightly judged inferior to what he discovered, unlike a Kierkegaard, a Dostoevsky or a Nietzsche.

“Fitzgerald admirers deplore the fact that he brooded over his failure and, by dint of ruminating so deeply upon it, spoiled his literary career. We, on the contrary, deplore that he did not remain sufficiently loyal to that failure, that he did not sufficiently explore or exploit it. It is a second-order mind that cannot choose between literature and the real dark night of the soul”.

In the same piece, Cioran equates loyalty to failure with sickness. The healthy, he says, keep a certain distance from our ‘contradictory and intense’ states, while to be sick is ‘to coincide totally with oneself’. The former allows us to act. But isn’t it precisely one’s distance from oneself a part of sickness; it is the part which can never act?

“When you imagine you have reached a certain degree of detachment, you regard as histrionic all zealots … But doesn’t detachment, too, have a histrionics of its own? If actions are mummery, the very refusal of action is one as well. Yet a noble mummery.”

The interaction of conditions is inevitable. Nobility is left to the silent and invisible. ‘The Crack-Up’ is called the work of a sick man, yet its impressive lucidity is a histrionics of detachment, more or less identical to Cioran’s own work, sick only inasmuch as it cannot achieve oneness with its subject. Oneness is barely human, hence our fascination with good and evil. Perhaps this sharp division between sickness and health is where Cioran lapses into the sentimentality Fitzgerald was prone to. It is a form of self-pity, trying to justify the inherent hubris of writing and publishing. Aware of this, Cioran tells us not to worry about those who are excessively self-pitying because an excess of self-pity preserves reason.

“This is not a paradox … for such brooding over our miseries proceeds from an alarm in our vitality, from our reaction of energy, at the same time that it expresses an elegiac disguise of our instinct of self-preservation.”

This helps answer a perennial question: why did Cioran live so long without killing himself? Sickness can increase self-pity, thereby reason, thereby self-preservation. To cross the abyss that is life, if that is our purpose, we must use both sickness and health, self-pity and detachment, the desert and the oasis. To deny either is either fatal or contemptible. Cioran shows by example, how various the tension between opposites is manifested. His examples have one thing in common it seems: the admittance of lucidity, that which lies behind all stories, all systems, all action, all help.

As academia eschews ambivalence and individualism, rewarding instead skills of memory and language, it might be worth stepping into the vanishing point Cioran occupied so tenaciously, if only to re-open the stagnant wounds of our lucidity.

“The ideally lucid, hence ideally normal, man should have no recourse beyond the nothing that is in him”.


  1. dan b. says

    ‘He passed sleepless nights wandering the dodgy streets of an obscure Romanian city.’ – what an irony. Sibiu (Hermanstadt), the ‘obscure city’ was the European Capital of Culture in 2008. Prince Charles of GB was so impressed with the city that he invested a lot of money in restoration of this lovely Transylvanian middle age city. Thank you.

  2. Kevin says

    This is quite a load of pretentious drivel–which well befits its subject, I might add. Poor Cioran: Fascism and the Iron Guard didn’t work out so well; therefore, existence is miserable and unjustifiable. Q.E.D.

    As for the author/reviewer’s own pretentiousness, let’s take but one example of many: “As academia eschews ambivalence and individualism, rewarding instead skills of memory and language”. Such pseudo-profound nonsense no doubt contributes to that specialized body of knowledge known as the “onanarium”, but it means absolutely nothing, outside the self-gratification it provides its author.

  3. tom says

    no it doesn’t jason.

    E.M Cioran and Stephen Mitchelmore makes two people , and Kevin took them into acount.

    14 og fifty is no proof ; what if 1000 agree with Kevin ? the proof is in the content.

    he is right , that’s all.

  4. zeno says

    Reading Cioran’s essay–“Odyssey of Rancor”–is absolutely brilliant. Funny, perverse, original. He is extremely bold in the way Celine was bold, or Oscar Wilde, or Nietzsche, or Joseph de Maistre. He makes you think, reframe, see something old in a totally challenging new light. He confronts you with yourself. He asks: which of us human beings is not fundamentally mired in vanity, envy, and pride? To reduce him to fascism is the sign of an inferior mind with an absolute lack of humor that cannot find its way out of a category.

    Sorry, Kevin.

  5. says

    This is an immature and horrendously misnathropic review. You seem to think it is your role to judge this writers right to exist yet you evince no sense of responsibility to grasp Cioran in his own terms, to make sense of his as a real, unusual, particular and particularly apprehension of contemporary life. Instead you reduce it to a matter of style. There is huge philosophical depth in his writings and you reduce it to litterature. Pretty appauling if you ask me.

  6. steve says

    I tend to agree with Kevin the Gerbil and Aaron Asphar. I wrote this in 1997 and would write something very different now. Please imagine this feature has been removed. I have no control over its annoying presence.

  7. Andrew Roberts says

    “Perhaps his most worthwhile work apart from the aphorisms, we can find in his short pieces on other writers collected in Anathemas And Admirations . In particular, the essay on Scott Fitzgerald. Here is a writer one might otherwise ignore: sentimental claptrap elevated to art by a lazy world.”

    Well, that is certainly a striking statement. It doesn’t seem to me to bear much relation to reality though. Where is the sentimentality?

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