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.”
And yet Cioran cannot help but contemplate the void, probing, circling, undermining, and contradicting himself, sticking his hand in the fire but then withdrawing it just in time. “The void—myself without me—is the liquidation of the adventure of the ‘I’—it is being without any trace of being, a blessed engulfment, an incomparable disaster.”
A curious thing happens when Cioran reflects on his friend Samuel Beckett, another profound appreciator of the void. Cioran says all the usual complementary things about Beckett, praising his solitude and integrity, his extraordinary simplicity, even his almost monstrous saintliness.
“He [Beckett] is a destroyer who adds to existence—who enriches by undermining it.” An act, of course, that is at the axis of Cioran’s thought. But even though he never quotes Beckett, except for a few conversational asides, Beckett’s presence is permeating and pervasive. The lethal illuminations of his words, “the drops of silence through silence,” seem to totally undermine the philosophical gristle and well-ordered discursions of Cioran, of his stubborn embrace of a post-Wittgensteinian tradition that has lost most of its punch, if not its relevance, to contemporary dilemmas. In the presence of Beckett, Cioran’s language loses its resonance. It doesn’t fully breathe or point beyond itself. Even in the middle of appreciating the pirouettes of his own epigrammatic and brilliant wit, his thought seems to devour its own essence with a stubborn and mandarin appetite well seasoned with elitist despair.
As Cioran says about the poet St. John Perse, “The proper role and final function of language is toengender and destroy the gods.” But after the gods have been dispatched and nothing remains but rubble, what then? Not, in Cioran’s case, the cold deliverance of Buddhism. Only language, the stuff of it, the smell of it, the repetitions of it, the vanity and glory of it.
In his essay about the French poet Michaux, Cioran could well be talking about himself when he declares that it would have been a “catastrophy if Michaux had taken to Buddhism! He would have left his gifts there, his faculty for excess. Deliverance would have annihilated him as a writer: no more ‘gusts,’ no more torments, no more exploits. It is because he has not lowered himself to any formula of salvation, to any simulacrum of illumination, that frequenting him is so stimulating.”