Anathemas and Admirations
By E. M. Cioran. Translated by Richard Howard.
Arcade: New York, 1991. 256 pp. $22.95.
I’ve always been a sucker for well-articulated despair and fin de siecle weariness, and what better way seemingly to serve this indulgence than with the latest acerbic and eloquent offering of E. M. Cioran, the solitary Romanian aphorist and philosopher, now in his eighties, who has lived in France since 1937. Not only does Cioran’s Anathemas and Admirations, a wide-ranging collection of aphorisms and literary essays, contemplate mortality and the seductions of suicide as well as the illusions and viruses of philosophical speculation (all well-worked themes that run throughout Cioran’s work), but also sprinkled throughout are various reflections on Buddhism as well as a short appreciation of his friend and fellow exile Samuel Beckett, another weary investigator par excellence of the nuances of suffering and the comedic possibilities of impermanence.
At first blush, one is not disappointed. Cioran’s spirit of inquiry, the rapid fire delivery of his a phoristic views as well as the muscular will of his refusal to capitulate to easy solutions, communicates an intensity of being that is almost intoxicating. It is certainly seductive. But then a certain redundancy sets in, as if one note is being hammered on over and over, causing what at first seems to be an extraordinarily elegant and aristocratic style to become, in the end, dense with futility and the suffocations of post-Nietzschean European pessimism. One is left with the melancholy impression that Cioran compulsively undermines any possibility of relief from his own spiritual torments by refusing to abandon the ferocious reductions of his mental process. It is an exhausting struggle. His mind, while at first accepting so alertly the basic strategies of Buddhist inquiry—”We are all deep in a hell each moment of which is a miracle”—finally embraces a considered and stubborn refusal to venture beyond discursive thought.
No matter how ruthlessly Cioran questions the nature of illusion or the inevitable paralysis of the purely speculative mind, he will not relinquish his self-appointed role as “the skeptic-on-duty of a decaying world.” He will not bend. He will not allow even the hint of transformation, or deliverance, or any acceptance that there is such a thing as a further consciousness. He defiantly guards his spiritual torment until finally, diseased and culturally toxic, he submerges himself in a stubborn and arrogant bind between the nothingness of death and the nothingness of birth.
In a brilliant earlier essay, The Undelivered, Cioran quotes Buddha’s last exhortation: “Death is inherent in all created things; labor ceaselessly for your salvation.” Cioran has no problem meditating on death. In fact, all variations of the grim reaper seem to exhilarate him, but the entire idea of salvation is especially repugnant to him. “Salvation, indeed, has a meaning only if we are provisional to the point of mockery; if there were the slightest principle of duration in us, we should have been forever saved or lost: no more quest, no more horizon. If deliverance matters at all, our unreality is a godsend.”
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