grey picture of sea port

To his later chagrin, Emil Mihai Cioran was born in Rășinari, Romania, in 1911. His father Emilian was an Orthodox priest, while his mother Elvira was the head of the Christian Woman’s League. Following an unremarkable, yet happy, early childhood, at 17 Cioran enrolled in the University of Bucharest, where he read philosophy and wrote an undergraduate thesis on the work of Henri Bergson. Suitably proficient in the German language, he conducted postgraduate studies at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin from 1933 to 1936, where he became accquainted with the systematic style of philosophy perfected by Kant and Hegel, later rejecting it for the “abstract indiscretion” of existential philosophy. Following a disastrous stint as a school teacher upon his return to Romania, in 1937 Cioran received a postgraduate scholarship from the Institut Français, which he used to leave his native land for good and settle in Paris. He enrolled at the Sorbonne to complete a doctoral thesis, but never wrote it.

Having already published a number of short books in Romanian, among them Pe culmile disperării (On the Heights of Despair), Cioran decided to break entirely with his past and began to speak and write exclusively in French. Awarded the Prix Rivarol in 1950, the publication of Précis de décomposition (A Short History of Decay) by Gallimard won Cioran the recognition he craved within the French intellectual scene. A brilliant, lyrical stylist, in the following decades his books – which include La Tentation d'exister (The Temptation to Exist); Histoire et utopie (History and Utopia); La Chute dans le temps (The Fall into Time); and De l'inconvénient d'être né (The Trouble with Being Born) – explored with acerbic wit, unsettling insight, and biting humour the existential themes of despair, decadence, decay, death, dissolution, disease, alienation, absurdity, boredom, birth, futility, failure, history, religion, God, and suffering which preoccupied him. Exceptionally well-read, he could have joined the ranks of professional philosophers, but he grew suspicious of, and in the end rejected, what he termed the “megalomania” of philosophical language. In any case, with its pedantic protocols, stifling conventions, and playground cliques, the university enclosure would have suffocated him. He pithily observed that “for a writer, the university is death”.

His crippling insomnia, which afflicted him for years, had a profound effect upon him. Forced to endure continuous conscious awareness without respite, alone with himself, time for Cioran failed to pass in pursuit of a meaningful future. He came close to suicide. As he describes it:

So, instead of starting a new life, at eight in the morning you’re like you were at eight the evening before. The nightmare continues uninterrupted in a way, and in the morning, start what? Since there’s no difference from the night before, that new life doesn’t exist. The whole day is a trial, it’s the continuity of the trial. While everyone rushes toward the future, you are outside. So, when that’s stretched out for months and years, it causes the sense of things, the conception of life, to be forcibly changed. You don’t see what future to look forward to, because you don’t have any future. And I really consider that the most terrible, most unsettling, in short the principal experience of my life.

Unsurprisingly, he came to see “the state of consciousness as the great misfortune, and in my case the permanent misfortune. Normally, it’s the contrary, it’s consciousness which is man’s advantage. Me, I arrived at the conclusion that no, the fact of being conscious, of not being oblivious, that is the great catastrophe”. Eventually, insomnia caused him to break with his “idolatry of philosophy”, turning instead to literature and poetry in which, as he says, “I found no answers either, but states that were analogous to my own”. This literary influence (he counted Samuel Beckett among his friends, and particularly admired Pascal and Baudelaire) can be observed in the fragmentary rhythms and elegant cadences of his prose.

Difficult to categorise, Eugene Thacker describes Cioran’s work as consisting in a grey area “somewhere between philosophy and poetry, the confession and the rant, ecstatic nihilism and black humour”. And whether intended or not, he can be darkly funny to read. For example: “I know one mad old woman who expects her house to fall to pieces from one minute to the next; she spends her days and her nights on the alert; creeping from room to room, ears cocked for every sound, she is furious that the event takes so long to occur”; or: “I remember a poor wretch who, still in bed at noon, addressed himself in imperative tones: ‘Will! Will!’”; and, in keeping with his suspicion that life is a lamentable error: “if I used to ask myself, over a coffin: ‘What good did it do the occupant to be born?’, I now put the same question to anyone alive”.

In 1942 he met his long-time partner (and fellow insomniac) Simone Boué, an English teacher, and settled with her in the Latin Quarter as a reclusive philosophical essayist. Workshy on principle, and aiming to safeguard his freedom, Cioran incredibly managed to use his student ID until the age of 40, eating regularly in student cafeterias, until a law forbidding the enrollment of students older than 27 meant the game was finally up. Often contradictory, he considered his ability to avoid work his greatest accomplishment, later remarking that “my life hasn’t been a failure because I succeeded in doing nothing”. Apart from occasional employment as a translator and manuscript reader, he got by through the forbearance of friends and the generosity of strangers, whom he would charm with his considerable wit and erudition to obtain a free dinner. A selective misanthrope, his effrontery extended to masquerading as a man of faith in order to leach off religion. As Costica Bradatan amusingly writes in The Los Angeles Review of Books: “whenever he had the chance, the God-basher Cioran would merrily show up at the Romanian Orthodox Church for free dining opportunities”.

Later in life Cioran enjoyed a measure of international fame upon the publication of his books in English (brilliantly translated by Richard Howard), thus introducing him to a wider, Anglo-American audience. When he wasn’t writing he enjoyed daily solitary walks in and around the Latin Quarter and Luxembourg gardens, and only rarely received guests to the sixth floor garret on the rue de l’Odéon which he shared with Boué, who was a devoted support to him. In 1995, after four to five years of continuous decline while interned at the Broca Hospital in Paris, Cioran finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, in the end forgetting who he was entirely. For a man of such intensity and sharpness of intellect, it was among the cruelest of imaginable fates, exemplifying in the end the tragedy of existence he confronted so vividly – and unflinchingly – in his writings.

Cioran produced nothing that might approximate a cohesive philosophical system or scheme. Rather, as Susan Sontag observes, both stylistically and temperamentally he emulates the example set by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the later Wittgenstein, who inaugurated a new kind of philosophising in response to the collapse of nineteenth century system-building. This style, she notes, was “personal (even autobiographical), aphoristic, lyrical, anti-systematic”. Cioran himself remarked, with characteristic candour, that he adopted the aphorism “due to my dislike of developing things”. These “momentary truths” arise for him out of, and are set in motion by, “an encounter, an incident, a fit of temper”. To write, he said, “I always had to be either depressed or angry, furious or disgusted, but never in a normal state. And preferably, I write in a state of semi-depression. There has to be something that’s not right”. Depressive states, he wrote, “in which separation from the world steadily and painfully increases, brings man closer to his inner reality and cause him to discover death in his own subjectivity”.

Bleak and uncompromising, Cioran confronts (even openly despises) a species adept at manufacturing death and disaster, a world fine-tuned to produce incomprehensible horrors. Automatically conscripted as expendable footsoldiers in the nuclear age, mass death perpetually hangs over us all. He aptly observes, therefore, that everything is infected with “the contagion of nothingness”; that nothing escapes nothingness, that our return to nothingness is a fate which we can neither circumvent nor escape. At once tragic and arbitrary, life consists in facts that are irreconcilable with human wishes and desires, a futile concatenation of miseries which no philosophy or ideology can cure. The groundlessness of our existence – the inadequacy of our conceptual supports – renders all efforts to transpose its aimless contrariety into a system or scheme that would lend succour to human life, that would assure us of our special historical significance, an utter failure.

He was acutely struck, as other thinkers of the absurd were, by the emptiness of our “finalising projects” and “theological illusions”. These are consolations whose existence attest to our effort as self-conscious creatures to alleviate our terror of death. But, as he puts it, “it is impossible to cancel an organic fear by way of abstract concepts”. Even so, as Cioran realised, much of human civilisation is a monument to our pathological denial of death, which is paradoxically expressed through our heightened ability to end life. People have sought down the centuries to affirm their mastery of death by wielding it as a weapon: through their mass disposal of other people imposing visions of reality that mould it in their own, immortalised image. And again demonstrating that even the most educated and penetrating of minds are not immune to totalitarian “solutions”, Cioran would himself briefly succumb to the grotesque allure of fascism in the 1930s, writing a disturbing paean to it called The Transfiguration of Romania (1936). While he later renounced fascism, regretting his support for an ultra-nationalist and antisemitic Romanian organisation called The Iron Guard, across his work there are unmistakable authoritarian and elitist leanings which in part explain – but hardly excuse – his shameful sympathy for a organisation he would later describe as “demented”.

While fragmented in form, Cioran’s work is nevertheless united in its determination to lift the veils of illusion human beings have spun in order to conceal from themselves the essential features of their reality. If Nietzsche was “dynamite”, exploding the moral bedrock of the Judeo-Christian world, Cioran is better characterised as a precision bomb, using his great gift for language to prise apart our most hallowed idols. He acts upon the given pieties and established precepts underpinning everyday existence rather as a sharp pin acts upon a nice shiny balloon. Invariably, the balloon explodes, the stale air inside dissipates, and all that’s left is a sad and useless shred of expended rubber. He opines upon a dizzying array of subjects, some of which are sampled below:

The history of ideas: “[A] parade of labels converted into so many absolutes”

Style: “Every idolatry of style starts from the belief that reality is even more hollow than its verbal figuration”

Religion: “[W]hen they must despair, men will always prefer kneeling to standing”

God: “You can stifle every impulse in humanity except the need for an Absolute”

Writing: “Silence is unbearable: what strength it takes to settle into the concision of the Inexpressible! It is easier to renounce bread than

speech. Unfortunately, the verbal turns to verbiage, to literature. Even thought that way tends, ever ready to spread out, to puff up; to check it with a period, to contract it into an epigram or a witticism is to counter its expansion, its natural movement, its impulse toward dilution, toward inflation. Whence our systems, whence philosophy”

America: “[A]n impetuous void, a fatality without substance”

The West: “Given the spectacle of their teeming successes, the nations of the West had no trouble exulting history, attributing to it a meaning and a finality. It belonged to them, they were its agents: hence it must take a rational course… Consequently they placed it under the patronage, by turns, of Providence, of Reason, and of Progress. What they lacked was a sense of fatality, which they are at last beginning to acquire, overwhelmed by the absence which lies in wait for them, by the prospect of their eclipse”

Boredom: “Boredom dismantles the mind, renders it superficial, out at the seams, saps it from within and dislocates it. Once ennui has seized you, it will accompany you to every encounter, as it has accompanied me for as long as I can remember… Whatever share of Being was dispensed to me is being eroded by ennui, and if a few scraps remain it is only because boredom requires some substance on which to act…”

Goethe: “[A] mediocrity without precedent

Voltaire: “[T]he first literary man to erect his incompetence into a procedure”

Birth: “[S]ource of every infirmity, every disaster”; “I know that my birth is fortuitous, a laughable accident, and yet, as soon as I forget myself, I behave as if it were a capital event, indispensable to the progress and equilibrium of the world”

Philosophy: “[T]hat universal insipidity”

Stoicism: “What grounds for granting even a grain of human progress when we think how easily the Christian fables snuffed out stoicism! If the latter had managed to propagate, take possession of the world, men might have come to something, or almost. Resignation, had it become compulsory, would have taught us to endure our misfortunes with dignity, to contemplate our nullity in silence”

Death: “[I]f death had only negative aspects, dying would be an unmanageable action”

Suffering: “[I]t is not suffering which liberates, but the desire to suffer”

Being: “[A] pretension of Nothingness”

Illness: “[I]f illnesses have a philosophical mission in the world, then it can only be to prove how illusory is the feeling of life’s eternity and how fragile its illusion of finality”

The self: “[A] promontory over nothingness where it dreams of a spectacle of reality”

History: “[A] procession of delusions”; “[A] minimum of unconsciousness is necessary if one wants to stay inside history”

E.M. Cioran

In principle, what arrests the dusk of melancholy, what soothes the spectre of discord between thought and being, is the assurance of authoritative categories and conceptualisations which permit our beliefs to be rationally grounded. But no such salve or solvent is appealed to by Cioran, an incurable melancholic. Inevitably, the price to be paid manifests psychologically: “the man who unmasks his fictions renounces his own resources and, in a sense, himself”. Shorn of metaphysical supports or rational taxonomies, he seems, to borrow a line from Nietzsche, “to walk about outside in the blowing wind naked, hardening himself until he is without feeling”. Yet Cioran exemplifies not the destruction of feeling, but in a certain sense its excruciating apotheosis; as he points out, “there is nothing in us more deeply-rooted and less perceptible than the feeling of some essential failure”. His work forgoes abstract systematising for visceral scutiny of the feelings to which consciousness – disabused of the usual premises – gives rise.

Less original than Nietzsche, he nevertheless avoids Nietzsche’s often ludicrous grandiosity, trading his overblown fantasies of power for a more subtle and nuanced appreciation of our human limits and frailties. If he has anything resembling a method, it is a disillusory, deflationary, dilatory one: “initially an instrument or method, scepticism ultimately took up residence inside me, became my physiology, the fate of my body, my visceral principle, the disease I can neither cure nor die of”. Fluctuating between rage and resignation, he epitomises the sceptical mind pushed to the limits of endurance, when existence becomes a self-incriminating trial to which he has never assented, and for which no resolution is available. On this view, life is not a refuge from nothingness, but the most tragic biological mistake.

Cioran is a ruthlessly perceptive diagnostician of human discrepancy, a self-loathing witness to our insolvent maladies. Indeed, his is the crippling dilemma facing the modern mind, when thought, unable to countenance or command the myriad complexities it has itself created, turns in furious accusation upon itself. Intellectually, he is what emerges only in a very late, exceptionally self-conscious age – when the human species, sagging under the weight of its historical detritus, its self-same world littered (literally) with the putrifying remnants of its many failed experiments and clapped-out ideologies, produces its final, misanthropic misgivings: “we are the great invalids, overwhelmed by old dreams, forever incapable of utopia”.

Possessing a profound feeling “for the irreversible and the irrevocable”, he is ultimately the most piercing exponent of what Nietzsche called “tragic insight”. Discombobulating and remorseless, Cioran is the macabre mortician or morbid undertaker who tells you everything is wrong with you, simply because you’re alive to begin with. In the inconsolable lethality of the human condition, all is unrelenting ruin; existence a shroud of erroneous torment. Cioran expects nothing, denies everything, divines in thought its cosmic invalidity, in Being its total inconsequence.

This of course begs the question: why read him? Cioran presents a difficult case to answer positively, since it’s virtually impossible to point to any constructive aspect of his thinking that one might find affirmative. But the reasons for reading are many. Some philosophers we read in the hope of attaining answers – however partial or provisional – to the questions that haunt us. We may seek, by turns, confirmation that our thought is adequate to reality, or consolation that our lives matter in respect to some larger purpose or principle. We may read to jolt our thinking out of its usual “dogmatic slumber”, as Kant put it. But we can also read to heighten our senses, to confirm we are not alone in even our darkest suspicions. In a meeting of minds with the thinkers of the past, we can apprehend what matters most: this moment, here and now, when you are suspended, however momentarily, in a reflective dimension of the utmost intimacy, in dialogue with thoughts which may help challenge and clarify your own.

If Nietzsche was the great contrarian of the nineteeth century, Cioran, to a less famous extent, is the great contrarian of the twentieth. He refuses to conjure for existence a remedy, preferring to simply bring us to our senses. Gone, therefore, are the hollow insincerities, the tired clichés, the uplifting obfuscations: Cioran forsakes all of it. It’s true that he was rarely consistent, and frequently contradictory, his work riddled with dogmatic and decrepit musings of a sometimes morally irredeemable nature. Yet at the same time, Cioran also shows the human mind as it actually is: always in tension with itself, forever playing itself off against itself. Philosophical systems and theories that broach of no objection or nuance constrict the mind’s potential, corralling thought into rigid and listless shapes. But in the incessant interrogation and critical re-evaluation independent thought requires, the mind becomes alive to its inadequacies, attuned to its immediate surroundings, alert (one hopes) to the authoritarian vacuities which might seek to incarcerate it. And on an existential level, through the transference of thought to page, life can occasionally become more bearable. As Cioran remarks: “everything I’ve written, I wrote to escape a sense of oppression, suffocation. It wasn’t from inspiration, as they say. It was a sort of getting free, to be able to breathe”. Through writing, as through other displacement activities, life may be endured, although it can never supply any final absolution.

At their best, Cioran’s aphorisms deftly puncture the narcissistic self-regard of a species who would reduce all the world to a vanity mirror. To the mind hopeful for the future, to the believer in cosmic destiny or human exceptionalism, naturally he seems grotesque, inhuman. But existence without the usual trappings, absent the usual pieties, is grotesque – is inhuman. Still, perhaps through Cioran one can ward off the temptation to megalomania and monomania. Read him, then, on a beautiful cloudless morning, with a chorus of birdsong, when you feel yourself to be the enduring centre of a kindly universe. Cioran offers the ultimate shock therapy, an alarm call, a rigourous dousing in the frigid bath of reality. This is the pang of realisation he induces: when life is at last apprehended for what it is not, and where to be, is to be mistaken.

Alexandre Leskanich lives and writes in London. He is working on his first book, The Anthropocene and the Sense of History: Reflections from Precarious Life, a philosophical examination of the experiential texture of historicized life under conditions of ecological crisis.


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 4 ("Thinking Otherwise"). If you enjoy reading this, please consider making a small donation or becoming a subscriber. We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.