E.M. Cioran: The Delusions of our Sadness

“However much I have frequented the mystics, deep down I have always sided with the Devil; unable to equal him in power, I have tried to be worthy of him, at least, in insolence, acrimony, arbitrariness, and caprice.”

– E.M. Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations

On rereading Edmund White’s essay on E.M. Cioran’s book Anathemas and Admirations I was reminded of my fascination with the power of the aphorism. White in his usual ironic self-riddling minimalism said of the late Cioran, he is “a Romanian who’s lived in France since 1937, admires Buddhism of the most unconsoling variety, has contemplated suicide for decades, esteems extremists, fanatics and eccentrics of all sorts and has instituted vertigo into his daily life. Instead of accumulating wisdom, he has shed certainties. Instead of reaching out to touch someone, he has fastidiously cultivated his exemplary solitude.”  He is another member of that small  band of epicurean pessimists who will – as Dylan Thomas, said, “not go gentle into that good night”

Cioran exemplified the dictates of Schopenhauer’s musings when he said: “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.” That other disciple of suffering, Friedrich Nietzsche said it this way: “The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that it is this discipline alone which has created every elevation of mankind hitherto? That tension of the soul in misfortune which cultivates its strength, its terror at the sight of great destruction, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpretating, exploiting misfortune, and whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed upon it- has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”

In 1935 Cioran’s mother is reputed to have told him that if she had known he was going to be so unhappy she would have aborted him. Later on in response to this incident he told a friend “I’m simply an accident. Why take it all so seriously?” In statements like this one has to laugh out loud. Maybe this is what Nietzshe meant when he said: “Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” In his book, The Trouble with being Born, Cioran said of suicide: “It’s not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.” The subtle humor of such aphorisms is not for the feint of heart.

A Cosmopolitan of the Mind, Cioran felt that “a self-respecting man is a man without a country.”1  By this he meant “we inhabit a language rather than a country.”2 This goes back to his Buddhist and Gnostic reflections on Illusion: “Illusion begets and sustains the world; we do not destroy one without destroying the other. Which is what I do every day. An apparently ineffectual operation, since I must begin all over again the next day.”1 The character Constantin Constantius in Soren Kierkegaard’s, Repetition, once said of repetition that it does not “have the sadness of recollection—it has the blissful security of the moment.”

There are two Greek theories of repetition that seem to be appropriate to this formulation:

The first is that of motion, actually, the impossibility of motion, which the Eleatics, notably Zeno and Parmenides, affirmed. It was asserted that motion is impossible, because if a man wants to go from point A to point B, he must first traverse a midway point—call it X—to get there. However, he cannot get to X unless he first gets to a midway point between A and X, and so forth. This reason is applied ad infinitum. Therefore motion is impossible, an illusion. Kierkegaard reminds us that one Greek sought to refute this merely by pacing back and forth without uttering a word.

The second Greek concept is Plato’s idea of recollection, which has to do with knowledge acquisition. In the Phaedo we find Socrates discoursing on the acquisition of knowledge as a recollection of things from a previous incarnation. Ostensibly, this idea is put forth by Socrates as a way to comfort his friends. That is, if a man can learn anything he must have already known something about what he is going to learn or he would not be equipped to learn anything. And if he has known something without having been taught it (in this life), he must have learned it before his birth. And if the soul existed prior to birth it stands to reason that it survives death, and thus his friends have no cause for grief.

This innate and prior knowledge is triggered into consciousness by sensory input. Plato is striving to work beyond a two-fold paradox. Namely, if a person does not know something, he cannot learn it since he knows nothing about it. If, on the other hand, he knows it, he does not need to learn it. Plato uses recollection to get beyond this problematical hurdle. This theory is also pursued in the Meno and the Philebus.

Recollection is confined to motionlessness and to the past. Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition, on the other hand, is in constant movement and is connected to the ethical future.

In a fragment of his early posthumously published work, Book of Delusions, Cioran asks “Have you ever felt the beginning of motion, have you ever been tormented by the first departure of the world from itself? Have you ever touched the first pure shiver of motion, the prime ecstasy of becoming, the initial vortex of time?” This movement in time is the key to Cioran’s dispersion, his aphoristic energy; the feeling of being cut off within Time, divorced from any redemption or transcendence is there from the beginning: “The dramatic moment of the individual existence culminates always in the struggle with time. This struggle, however, is without escape, because the being touched by temporality, once having conquered eternity, inevitably regrets time.”6 It is this duplicitous love of life that leads us into that pit of endless trepidation:  “The only thing one can love is life itself, which I detest. It is absolutely impossible to get rid of time, without getting rid of life at the same time.”

Kierkegaard once said: “Repetition’s love is in truth the only happy love. Like recollection’s love, it does not have the restlessness of hope, the uneasy adventurousness of discovery…” This love for the beloved, this repetition at the heart of Kierkegaard’s inquiry asks a simple question of Constantius: “Does he actually love the girl, or is she not once again simply the occasion that sets him in motion?… The split in him caused by his contact with her would be reconciled by his actually having returned to her. So once again the girl was not an actuality but a reflection of motions within him and an incitement of them(my italics).” This figuration of love that sets us all in motion and incites us toward greater and greater delusions is what Cioran meant when he wrote that whenever he is romantically interested in a woman he imagines her in a “high state of putrefaction but alas he continues loving her.”

Jesika Joy on this passage said: “There is something poetic about this. It reminds us that no matter how pathetic it is to be human (our need for love, the frailty of our bodies, the inherent meaninglessness of existence) there is also a beauty in our will to love, life and meaning.” The idea that we are transfixed within an ‘Order of the Unreal’ (Thomas Ligotti’s phrase) where “Nothing is tragic. Everything is unreal.”3 is a central dictum of Cioran’s aphoristic thematics. As James Trafford recently said of this: “Life is played out as an inescapable puppet show, an endless dream in which the puppets are generally unaware that they are trapped within a mesmeric dance of whose mechanisms they know nothing, and over which they have no control.”7

The Romanian émigré Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston in her biography of Cioran, Searching for Cioran, tells us that he was born in 1911 at the Transylvanian border into a well-respected Romanian family, Emilian Cioran was the second son of a vigorous and intellectual Orthodox priest. Both sides of his family participated – from the safety of bourgeois prosperity – in the forward-looking political movements aimed at bettering Romania’s condition. He would later call his childhood in the foothills of the Carpathians “crowned”, a high encomium from a man who would in his later years offer up, as a curt principle by which to accomplish the task of living: “To have committed every crime but that of being a father.”

Sam Munson in a review asks, What does Cioran offer us? Answering his own question, stating, “An alternative, I would argue, to the shuffling and reshuffling of pieties, to the superficial investigations of language and politics, to the long academic boredom that has settled over philosophy. To read Cioran is to be reminded of another strain in Western culture, one that rejects the progressive ethic of political compromise and social improvement.”

I’m of that school of thought, the school of night (“Black is the badge of hell / The hue of dungeons and the school of night.” Shakespear, Love’s Labor Lost), that Cioran typifies a mind that has awakened into the stupor of this unreal order of existence; and, for whom, once awakened, the nightmare of reality becomes not only a living hell, but a memory of a fallen paradise that will never be regained through any transcendence whatsoever. Rudolf Otto contends that horror stories provide a kind of low-level spiritual experience, a pale and primitive hint of a full-fledged encounter with the divine as a terrifying and otherworldly force. If one reads Cioran enough this encounter with the horror, the vacuity of existence, becomes the leitmotif of one’s agon with all that which would forever sink us back into mindlessness and the prison house of exile that is both our lamentation and our sorrow. The poet Rilke said it succinctly in his tenth elegy: “How woeful, strange, are the alleys of the City of Pain, where in the false silence created from too much noise, a thing cast out from the mold of emptiness swaggers that gilded hubbub, the bursting memorial.”

Thomas Ligotti reminds us that E. M. Cioran’s “philosophical essays are an assault on the highest level of the pure crumminess of all creation, a position that has led some commentators to classify him as a latter-day Gnostic—minus any god.” Ligotti also affirms that “Cioran is a consummate stylist, which is a vital quality for any writer whose essential attitude is that of negation.” Comparing the work of Thomas Bernhard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allan Poe to Cioran’s style he tells us that the “darkest vision of life requires the most dazzling pyrotechnics of language.”

Many critics David Lavery tells us have described Cioran as a ‘Gnositc’, but that he “should more properly be thought of as an analyst of the human tendency toward Gnosticism, the most skeptical, most inhumanist critic in any language of humankind’ s unquenchable longing.”4 Instead he sees in Cioran’s oeuvre “a psychohistory of our species’ failure to adapt itself to life on earth.” But instead of alleviating our exile in this kingdom of unreality Lavery tells us that Cioran’s “solution to humankind’s extreme alienation is not abandonment of the world; he seeks no transcendence. He counsels humiliation: he seeks a return to, a sinking back into, the earthly. We are autochthons of this world, if we would only realize it.”

And, yet, there are statements within the aphoristic panoply of Cioran’s writings that contradict this, as in “Transcendence possesses certain curative powers: whatever disguise he assumes, a god signifies a step toward recovery. Even the Devil represents for us a more effective recourse than our own kind.”5 But is it Transcendence that we seek? As he tells us “had we fallen from a total, a true innocence, nothing could withstand the vehemence of our desire to regain it; but the poison was in us already, right from the start, vague at first, increasingly distinct until it left its mark upon us, individualizing us forever.”5 It is this poison, the mark that has left us in Exile in this “Kingdom of Shadows“, lost in a nightmare of our own making: an endless repetition of a failed transcendence without recourse to salvation or redemption.

Laughter is the only resolution, the only defense against the power of this stark fact; what he calls “the horror of happiness.”

That Cioran saw this realm as a “Kingdom of Shadows”, one long regret, a charnel house for the sublime journey of a forlorn thought is a truism without precedent. As he said: “All my life is a baptism of shadows. Their kiss made me mature for darkness and sadness.”6 And as for humanity he told us: “It seems to me that the whole future process of humanity will be nothing other than a regaining of delusions.”6

So instead of regaining any paradise or heaven of the imagination, instead of a dark transport into the sublime and an unearthly transcendence, or a redemption into the plenum of some pleroma of fullness, some gnosis – what we find instead of salvation is the dark and hellish paradise of this endless kenoma, – the emptiness and abyss radiance of the Unreal.

A fitting epitaph:

––Why are thoughts born with so much difficulty under the clear sky? There are only thoughts in the night. And they have a mysterious precision, a troubling laconism; the thoughts in the night are without appeal. – The Book of Delusions


  1.  Drawn and Quartered (1983)
  2. Anatheamas and Admirations (1987)
  3. The Trouble With Being Born (1973)
  4. Late for the Sky: The Mentality of the Space Age (1992)
  5. The Fall into Time (1970)
  6. Book of Delusions (Hyperion, Volume V, issue 1, May 2010)
  7. The Shadow of a Puppet Dance: Metzinger, Ligotti and the Illusion of Selfhood (Collapse IV, September 2009)

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