Cioran is a Romanian genius, a philosopher who can turn extreme anguish into supreme elegance. But, as Duncan Fallowell finds out, no one seems to careby Duncan Fallowell / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
As an admirer of the Romanian philosopher EM Cioran, I very much wanted to review his book, History and Utopia. I thought of the Observer whose books pages are not anti-intellectual. But after I explained to the acting literary editor that Cioran was a 20th century European writer of the first rank, he said: “It’s a blind spot for me.”
So I rang The Times. Their literary editor seemed to be a composite of several individuals, but they said they would ring back. And they did-the answer was no to Cioran, but would I like to review a book on violence? I then contacted the Sunday Times. “I don’t think he’s for us, sorry.” It was clear that these literary editors had difficulty in believing that Cioran existed. I had the feeling that they all thought I was sending them up and that the philosopher was really a nightclub or a character in a novel by Anthony Powell: “Darling, we’re all going to Cioran’s tonight. He’s frightfully amusing-patch over one eye. Then we’re going on to Boofle’s.”
Next stop was Mark Amory at the Spectator. “Funny you should ask for Cioran, Tim Parks has just said it’s the only book he wants to review, so I’ve sent it off to him in Italy.” Drat. Who was Tim Parks to steal my Cioran? Had I not in the Christmas round-up made Cioran one of my writers of the year and written that his prose “advances in a series of magnificent, concentrated explosions?” Can an explosion be concentrated? That was the art of the phrase-and of the man.
I thought of trying the Sunday Telegraph and the TLS but recalled that both had avoided reviewing my own latest book. So I approached John Walsh at the Independent. He chuckled. “Who on earth is Cioran?” I explained. “Oh gawd!” he replied, “Look, can’t you review this new book on St Petersburg?”
John Calder, who has published more Nobel prize winners than anyone else, told me that he has given up publishing serious books in England because they are never review-ed and the literary editors only want to go to parties. At the time I thought it was sour grapes but I am beginning to think he had a point.
After a little more persuasion John Walsh said: “Oh all right. But not too long. And get it to me quickly.” My review was not too long. And I got it to him quickly. But it never appeared. So here it is.
The works of Cioran are gradually appearing in Britain, many years after their appearance in every other civilised country. This would not have surprised Cioran. England, he wrote, is a bewildering case of enlightened stupidity: “The country has not produced, to my knowledge, a single anarchist.” As the high priest of cynicism, Cioran raises negativity to the most positive of virtues.
He writes like a Nietzsche streamlined by Cocteau in the 1930s and given a flick knife by Camus in the 1950s. Cioran is the only modern philosopher who is also a great writer, turning extreme anguish into supreme elegance.
History and Utopia was first published in French in 1960. It is more rooted in politics than is usual with Cioran, who is more brilliant the more abstract he becomes. Born in Romania in 1911, the son of an Orthodox priest, he emigrated to Paris, permanently, in 1937. The work-a series of meditations on tyrants, the golden age, the function of hate, western decadence-and-comfort versus eastern vigour-and-cruelty-is Eurocentric and its limitations are those of its time. He was writing before the impact of immigration into western Europe from the third world, before the electronic revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sometimes Cioran is simply wrong-he foresaw a Europe united by the sword, whereas if it is to be united at all it will be through co-operative greed.
Cioran has been called both communist and fascist, but his political ideas are touchstones for a deeper exploration into the nature of man and the drama of life. On this he is coruscating, a master of concision. Consider this: every conviction consists chiefly of hate and only secondly of love. Or this: envy precedes our steps in order to direct them.
Cioran died in 1995, having lived an outwardly quiet life in a tiny Paris flat, but one obviously full of inner strain. He survived as a publisher’s reader and was a terrible insomniac. No one has identified the mechanism of disquiet more precisely than he. Moments of tenderness are rare-he is a stimulant not a tranquilliser-but all the more touching for that. His work is a refusal to be abject and looks our Creator squarely in the eye. Its final effect is of a profound reassurance in discovering that in the labyrinth of one’s most secret terrors and desires there sits a man with a torch and a map: Cioran is capable of such breathtaking intimacy, of such friendship. He defined supreme glory as “fame without a public.” This he has achieved. History and utopia
EM Cioran, trans. Richard Howard